By Luis S R Vas
Dr Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard-trained brain scientist, suffered a stroke, enabling her to study the working of her own brain at first-hand.
Thirty-seven-year-old Dr Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard-trained brain scientist, suffered a stroke in the morning of December 10, 1996. She awoke with pounding, caustic pain behind her left eye. It came in waves, gripping and releasing her. Nonetheless, she started her morning routine, oblivious of what was happening. She jumped on an exercise machine, looked down at her hands, and says they looked like primitive claws to her. She didn’t recognise her body as hers.
“It was as though my consciousness had shifted away from my consciousness of personality to where a mysterious person was having this experience,” she said. She also couldn’t define the boundaries of where her body ended and the things around her began. The molecules of her arm blended with the molecules in the wall. It made her feel enormous, expansive, and connected to all of the energy around her, which gave her a sense of peace. “Imagine what it would feel like to lose 37 years of emotional baggage,” she said.
It occurred to her that she had to get to work, but then her right arm became paralysed and that is when she finally realised she was having a stroke. She says rather than feel panic, her brain said, “Wow, this is so cool” – proof that scientists don’t think like the rest of us.
She decided to call her office but didn’t know the number. So she pulled out a stack of business cards, sifting for one with her work number. It took 45 minutes to get through a third of the cards. By then, however, the haemorrhage had grown and she didn’t know how to work the phone. She waited for a moment of clarity to return – it came in waves – but when she tried to dial the number from one of the cards, it just looked like squiggles. She matched the shapes of the squiggles on the card to the squiggles on the phone and eventually reached a colleague. When he answered the phone, all she heard him say was, “Whaa, whaa, whaa”– a bit like the sound the adults make in the Peanuts cartoon strip. When she opened her mouth to respond, the same sound came from her. Later when she was in the ambulance, she felt the energy in her body lift and her spirit surrender. “In that moment I knew that I was no longer the choreographer of my life,” she said. She woke up later that afternoon, surprised that she was still alive. Two-and-a-half weeks later, surgeons removed a blood clot the size of a golf ball from her skull. It took her eight years to completely recover with the help of her mother, who lives with her. Then she went on to study the working of her own brain at first-hand. Dr Taylor decided to be a brain scientist because she had a brother who had the brain disorder, schizophrenia. As a sister and as a scientist, she wanted to understand why she could take her dreams, connect them to her reality, and make them come true ; and why her brother’s brain, because of schizophrenia, could not connect his dreams to a common, shared reality, and instead converted them to delusions. Therefore, she dedicated her career to research into severe mental illnesses, and moved from her home state of Indiana to Boston where she worked in the lab of Dr Francine Benes of the Harvard Department of Psychiatry. In the lab, they were trying to find the biological differences between the brains of individuals diagnosed as normal, as compared to the brains of individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia, schizoaffective, or bipolar disorder.
They were essentially mapping the micro-circuitry of the brain. They were identifying the cells communicating with other cells, and identifying the chemicals involved along with the quantities of those chemicals. So there was a lot of meaning in Dr Taylor’s life because she was performing this kind of research during the day. Then in the evenings and on the weekends she travelled as an advocate for NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“My training as a scientist, however, did provide me with a roadmap to how the body and brain work,” she says. “And although I lost my left cognitive mind that thinks in language, I retained my right hemisphere that thinks in pictures. As a result, although I could not communicate with the external world, I had an intuitive understanding about what I needed to do in order to create an environment in which the cells in my brain could be happy and healthy enough that they could regain their function. In addition, because of my training, I had an innate trust in the ability of my brain to be able to recover itself and my mother and I respected the organ by listening to it. For example, when I was tired, I allowed my brain to sleep, and when I was fresh and capable of focusing my attention, my mother gave me age-appropriate toys and tools with which to work.
“When the cells in my left brain became non-functional because they were swimming in a pool of blood, they lost their ability to inhibit the cells in my right hemisphere. In my right brain, I shifted into the consciousness of the present moment. I was in the right here, right now awareness, with no memories of my past and no perception of the future. The beauty of La-la land (my right hemisphere experience of the present moment) was that everything was an explosion of magnificent stimulation and I dwelled in a space of euphoria. It is a great way to exist if you do not have to communicate with the external world, or care whether you have the capacity to learn. I found that in order for me to be able to learn anything, I had to take information from the last moment and apply it to the present moment. When my left hemisphere was completely nonfunctional early on, it was impossible for me to learn, which was okay with me, but I am sure it was frustrating for those around me. A simple example of this was trying to put on my shoes and socks. I eventually became physically capable of putting my shoes and socks on, but I did not understand why I would have to put my socks on before my shoes. To me they were simply independent actions that were not related and I did not have the cognitive ability to figure out the appropriate sequencing of the events. In time, I regained the ability to weave moments back together to create an expanse of time, and with this ability came the ability to learn methodically again. Life in La-la land will always be just a thought away, but I am truly grateful for the ability to think with linearity once again.” In her book, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, Dr Taylor takes us through the process of her left brain injury, the discovery of what it was like to live almost entirely through her right brain, and the eight years after the stroke that it took her to completely recover. Dr Taylor recreates for us what it was like to exist and function from the perspective of her right hemisphere where time doesn’t exist. This is the centre for bliss and joy, the ability to think outside the box, intuition, empathy. Another fascinating aspect, this is where we live without the ego– no individuality or feelings of separateness.
“I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been supported by science up until this point. The whole right hemisphere, left hemisphere possibilities, this has been an argument for over 200 years,” she says. “All I am doing is feeding fuel to a fire that has been going on for hundreds of years and it’s very exciting because now people are ready to hear it. People are ready to hear, ‘I am not just this, and I am not just that.’ We are tired of the incredible bipolarity of science saying the spiritualists are nuts, and the spiritualists are tired of the closed-mindedness of the scientists. We have this incredible chasm going on. How about a little corpus callosum love! Let us get both hemispheres functioning and communicating in all of us so that we are open-minded and we are open-hearted because we are actually utilising both hemispheres.” She learned that she had much more say about what goes on between her ears than she was ever taught and she believes that this is true for all of us. She used to understand that she had the ability to stop thinking about one thing by consciously choosing to preoccupy her mind with thinking about something else. However, she had no idea that it only took 90 seconds for her to have an emotional circuit triggered, flush a physiological response through her body and then flush it completely out of her. She calls it the 90-second rule. “We can all learn that we can take full responsibility for what thoughts we are thinking and what emotional circuitry we are feeling. Knowing this and acting on this can lead us into feeling a wonderful sense of well-being and peacefulness.” Dr Taylor goes on: “Whether it is my fear circuitry or my anger circuitry or even my joy circuitry – it is really hard to hold a good belly laugh for more than 90 seconds naturally. The 90-second rule is totally empowering. That means for 90 seconds, I can watch this happen, I can feel this happen and I can watch it go away. After that, if I continue to feel that fear or feel that anger, I need to look at the thoughts I am thinking that are re-stimulating that circuitry that is resulting in me having this physiology over and over again.
“When you stay stuck in an emotional response, you are choosing it by choosing to continue thinking the same thoughts that retrigger it. We have this incredible ability in our minds to replay but as soon as you replay, you are not here, you are not in the present moment. You are still back in something else and if you continue to replay the exact same line and loop, then you have a predictable result. You can continue to make yourself mad all day and the more you obsess over whatever it is, the more you run that loop, then the more that loop gets energy of its own to manifest itself with minimal amounts of thought, so it will then start on automatic. And it keeps reminding you, ‘Oh yeah, I was mad, I have to rethink that thought.’” She started making stained-glass brains as therapy. “I have a three-dimensional picture of the brain in my mind’s eye and the stained-glass brain image is my artistic impression of the different parts of the organ and how they intersect,” she says. She says it helped her with:
&bull Balance and equilibrium to stand still in front of a workspace and manipulate the project
&bull Gross motor movement. Handling glass is very delicate and dangerous. I was highly motivated to be very careful for both the glass and myself
&bull Fine-motor dexterity. Cutting glass is a precise activity; grinding glass requires holding my body firm. Equilibrium, pushing into the grinder – gross motor – and then lining all of the pieces up – fine motor
&bull Cognitive development. This type of a project is a long-term project with lots of steps. It helped me in my linear thinking
&bull Cartoon development of the original image required a combination of intuition and sensory organisation
&bull Focus and concentration balanced with sleep
&bull Artistry. How does one tweak it all to make it remarkable and beautiful?
Dr Taylor’s audiovisual presentation on her stroke is available at: http://www.ted.com/talks/view/id/229
Luis S. R. Vas has authored over a score of books during a decades’ long career in feature writing, publishing and corporate communications.
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