Book Review by Heidi Simmons
My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D.
When was the last time you thought about your brain?
We look into the mirror every day; comb our hair, wash our face and brush our teeth, never really considering what is happening within that amazing image reflected in the mirror. Ironically, we go about our lives not ”thinking” about our brain at all. That is — as long as it works.
A New York Times Bestseller, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D. (Plume, 206p. paperback) is the account of Taylor’s aneurysm — or stroke. A doctor of neuroanatomy at Harvard University studying the micro-circuitry of the brain (which cells in which areas of the brain communicate with which chemicals and in what quantities) — became her own research subject.
Taylor’s stroke was a rare form of an aneurysm called an arteriovenous malformation (AVM). She was born with an abnormal arterial configuration and at the age of 37 blood spewed into her left cerebral hemisphere damaging the area in her brain that controlled her speech and language (she couldn’t speak, read or write), her ability to logically put things in order (no math or “procedural” skills) and she couldn’t use her left arm and leg. There was much more. She lost many memories of good times as well as bad, and strangely, couldn’t even recognize herself in the mirror.
But for Taylor it was a twisted miracle. Not just because she survived the stroke, but because she had an awareness of what was happening while it was happening. At first, it may seem that awareness would be a curse. And how can brain damage at all be considered a miracle? This is what makes Taylor’s book so incredibly fascinating.
She recounts her experience as her brain cells deteriorate giving us a look at the complex and intricate working of our two-hemisphere brain. Taylor sensed she was suspended somewhere between normal and “esoteric space.” As her condition worsened, she witnessed with awe the automatic readjusting of her nervous system as it calculated and recalculated her ability to function. At one point she lost touch with the three-dimensional reality that surrounded her. She could no longer discern physical boundaries of where she began and where she ended. Taylor felt like a fluid, blending into the fabric of the universe.
“I am a conscious mind and this body is the vehicle through which I am ALIVE! I am trillions of cells sharing a common mind. I am here, now thriving as life, no –I am molecular life with manual dexterity and a cognitive mind!” These became her thoughts as she waited for help.
Taylor was no longer concerned with the billions of details her left-brain routinely used to define and conduct her external life. She felt at one with her body as a complex construction of living, thriving organisms. “As my consciousness slipped into a state of peaceful grace, I felt ethereal.” As seductive and as cool as it seemed to her, Taylor realized it was serious and she needed intervention if she wanted to rejoin the normal human experience.
In the hospital she knew the damaged left hemisphere held the details of her life that made the world make sense. Taylor survived, but her consciousness shifted. Who would she be now? She had become cocooned with a silent mind and tranquil heart. “In the absence of sight, sound, touch, smell, taste and fear, I felt my spirit surrender its attachment to this body and I was released from the pain.”
Without the domination of her left hemisphere, Taylor became a right-brain person. She began to experience people as “concentrated packages of energy.” She could sense the cellular frequencies of her visitors — their vibe. Some brought with them positive energy, while others were a drain.
In these difficult moments of healing and her return to the left-brain world, Taylor had her “insight.” As she relearned the simplest tasks — like brushing her teeth, combing her hair, putting socks on before shoes — she comes to understand the wonder of the right brain as never before. Though she had to relearn the names of colors — a left-brain activity — she could discern auras — a right brain function. Where she had felt judgment, self-doubt and insecurity before, she now felt free, relaxed and unencumbered. As Taylor relearned to walk, she would stagger, flip-flop her left limbs and list. She could read the faces and emotions of people as they passed, annoyed, afraid or compassionate — right-brain — though she felt no humiliation or embarrassment of her condition — left-brain.
Taylor discovered that it was the right brain that provided peace, joy and enlightenment. When her brain rebalanced to the dominant left side, she did not want to loose the grace of her right brain’s insights. She preferred the “being” part of her brain, compared to the “doing” side.
My Stroke of Insight is well written, a quick and engaging read (remarkable considering she had to learn how to read and write all over again). It is an accessible and informative account about how the brain functions. Taylor does not overwhelm the reader but gives just enough science with practical clarity. If you or someone you know had a stroke, she exemplifies the need for compassion, kindness and the patience necessary for healing. Most lasting is how she conveys the intricacies of our awesome, amazing and magical brain from which our minds arise.
Her message is simple: we are all cellular, molecular creatures sharing a cosmic consciousness capable of becoming more compassionate, joyful and content. So, next time you look in the mirror, consider what’s reflected back as trillions of cells vibrate at a frequency that sustains your unique identity and self-awareness.