Brain Scientist Gets a 'Stroke of Insight'

Imagine experiencing a stroke, and knowing exactly what is happening to you. That's just what happened to brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor when she suffered a stroke nearly a dozen years ago at age 37.

She talks about that experience and what it taught her, as detailed in her new book, My Stroke of Insight.

Excerpt: 'My Stroke of Insight'

'My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey'
My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey
By Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D.
Paperback, 224 pages
Plume
List Price: $15

It was 7:00 am on December 10, 1996. I sluggishly awoke to a sharp pain piercing my brain directly behind my left eye. Squinting into the early morning light, I clicked off the impending alarm with my right hand and instinctively pressed the palm of my left hand firmly against the side of my face. Rarely ill, I thought how queer it was for me to awaken to such a striking pain. As my left eye pulsed with a slow and deliberate rhythm, I felt bewildered and irritated.

As I rolled out of my warm waterbed, I stumbled into the world with the ambivalence of a wounded soldier. I closed the bedroom window blind to block the incoming stream of light from stinging my eyes. I decided that exercise might get my blood flowing and perhaps help dissipate the pain. Within moments, I hopped on to my "cardio-glider" (a full body exercise machine) and began jamming away to Shania Twain singing the lyrics, "Whose bed have your boots been under?". Immediately, I felt a powerful and unusual sense of dissociation roll over me. Even though my thoughts seemed lucid, my body felt irregular. As I watched my hands and arms rocking forward and back, forward and back, in opposing synchrony with my torso, I felt strangely detached from my normal cognitive functions. It was as if the integrity of my mind/body connection had somehow become compromised.

Feeling detached from normal reality, I felt as though I was observing myself in motion, as in the playback of a memory, as if my conscious mind was suspended somewhere between my normal reality and some esoteric space. I was sure I was awake, yet, I felt as if I was trapped inside the perception of a meditation that I could neither stop nor escape. Dazed, I felt the frequency of shooting pangs escalate inside my brain, and I realized that this exercise regime was probably not a good idea.

Feeling a little nervous about my physical condition, I climbed off the machine and bumbled through my living room on the way to the bath. As I walked, I noticed that my movements were no longer fluid. Instead they felt deliberate and almost jerky. There was no grace to my pace and my balance was so impaired that my mind seemed completely preoccupied with just keeping me upright.

As I lifted my leg to step into the tub, I held on to the wall for support. It seemed odd that I could sense the inner activities of my brain as it adjusted and readjusted all of the opposing muscle groups in my lower extremities to prevent me from falling over. I was momentarily privy to a precise and experiential understanding of how hard the fifty trillion cells in my brain and body were working in perfect unison to maintain the flexibility and integrity of my physical form.

Ignorant to the degree of danger my body was in, I balanced my weight against the shower wall. As I leaned forward to turn on the faucet, I was startled by an abrupt and exaggerated clamor as water surged into the tub. This unexpected amplification of sound was both enlightening and disturbing. It brought me to the realization that, in addition to having problems with coordination and equilibrium, my ability to process incoming sound (auditory information) was erratic. For the first time, I considered the possibility that I was perhaps having a major neurological malfunction that was life threatening.

In that instant, I suddenly felt vulnerable, and I noticed that the constant brain chatter that routinely familiarized me with my surroundings was no longer a predictable and constant flow of conversation. Instead, my verbal thoughts were now inconsistent, fragmented, and interrupted by an intermittent silence.

As my brain chatter began to disintegrate, I felt an odd sense of isolation. My blood pressure must have been dropping as a result of the bleeding in my brain because I felt as if all of my systems, including my mind's ability to instigate movement, were moving into a slow mode of operation. Yet, even though my thoughts were no longer a constant stream of chatter about the external world and my relationship to it, I was conscious and constantly present within my mind.

What is going on? I wondered. Have I ever experienced anything like this before? Have I ever felt like this before? This feels like a migraine. What is happening in my brain?

The harder I tried to concentrate, the more fleeting my ideas seemed to be. Instead of finding answers and information, I met a growing sense of peace. As the language centers in my left hemisphere grew increasingly silent, my consciousness soared into an all-knowingness, a "being at one" with the universe, if you will. In a compelling sort of way, it felt like the good road home and I liked it.

By this point I had lost touch with much of the physical three-dimensional reality that surrounded me. My body was propped up against the shower wall and I found it odd that I was aware that I could no longer clearly discern the physical boundaries of where I began and where I ended. Instead, I now blended in with the space and flow around me.

When the shower droplets beat into my chest like little bullets, I was harshly startled back into this reality. As I held my hands up in front of my face and wiggled my fingers, I was simultaneously perplexed and intrigued. Wow, what a strange and amazing thing I am. What a bizarre living being I am. Life! I am life! I am trillions of cells sharing a common mind. I am here, now, thriving as life. Wow! What an unfathomable concept!

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from MY STROKE OF INSIGHT

Copyright © MY STROKE OF INSIGHT, INC., 2008

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