DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, filling in for Terry Gross.
As a stroke survivor and brain scientist, Jill Bolte Taylor has a special ability to describe the experience of a stroke. Hers was caused by a severe hemorrhage in the left hemisphere of her brain. The stroke left her unable to speak, read, write or recall any aspects of her life. That was in late 1996, when she was 37. She recovered slowly over a period over a period of eight years.
On the morning of her stroke, Taylor had what she describes as a mystical or metaphysical experience that she believes was caused by the location of the bleed in her brain. The brain science behind that mystical experience is one of the things she explored in a lecture that became an Internet phenomenon. Her book, called "My Stroke of Insight," comes out in paperback later this month.
At the time of her stroke, she was a brain scientist at Harvard. She's now a neuro-anatomist affiliated with the Indiana University School of Medicine and is the national spokesperson for the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center. Her brother is schizophrenic.
Terry spoke to her last year, when "My Stroke of Insight" was first published.
TERRY GROSS, host:
Jill Bolte Taylor, welcome to FRESH AIR. You explain so vividly what you experienced during the stroke. Is it rare that a stroke survivor can do that?
Ms. JILL BOLTE TAYLOR (Author): You know, I think that I had an advantage because the brain was my area of expertise, and as a result of that, I've spent a lot of time thinking about my brain, thinking about how it processes information, analyzing all of my academic training, and trying to apply that to the experience inside of my own mind.
So yes, I do believe that it is unusual for someone to be so consciously tuned in to every step along the way during the process of cognitive degeneration.
GROSS: Did you have to do anything to reconnect to those memories, or did they remain intact?
Ms. TAYLOR: Well, the morning of the stroke, once I lost my left hemisphere, which thinks in language, once I lost the storyteller and the linearity of my thought, I still retained this ability to think in pictures and essentially run the video of my existence, and the right hemisphere shifts into a consciousness of the present moment.
So I had these experiences of the present moment, these memories that were vast and open and very complicated, and I did have to work with a gestalt therapist in order to help me go back and replay the video and add normal linearity to that story in order to be able to place language on it to be able to communicate it again.
GROSS: And I think what you're talking about there, about losing language and thinking in pictures, will become clearer a little later in the conversation. But I want to start with what happened. Would you describe for us the first symptoms that you had after awakening one morning in 1996?
Ms. TAYLOR: When I first awoke and sat up, I had a pulsating pain behind my left eye, and it was very unusual for me to experience any kind of pain. I rarely had headaches, and I'd never experienced a hemorrhage or stroke before. So of course I didn't automatically think, oh my gosh, I'm having a stroke.
So I got up and I was extremely sensitive to light. So I closed the drapes in order to cut out the light, and I started my normal routine, which was to jump onto my full-body, full-exercise cardio-glider machine. And as I'm exercising on this machine, I looked at my hands, and I realized that my hands looked like primitive claws grasping onto the bar, and it was a very peculiar sensation, and I looked at my body, and I thought - I thought that, you know, I was really a peculiar-looking thing, and I realized that my cognitive mind had shifted away from my normal perception of reality, where I'm the person on the machine having the experience, to essentially an esoteric space observing myself, witnessing myself having this experience. So those were the earliest symptoms.
GROSS: You say in your book that you held your hands up in front of your face and wiggled your fingers and thought that you were perplexed and intrigued, and you thought, wow, what a strange and amazing thing I am, what a bizarre living be I am. And you couldn't tell where you ended and the wall began and you literally felt at one with the things around you. And as I read that I thought it almost sounds like an LSD trip.
Ms. TAYLOR: I hear a lot of that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. TAYLOR: Not having, not having had that experience, I can't speak to that, but a lot of people say that, and you know, when you stop and you ask yourself what would LSD do to the brain, it is essentially shutting down some circuitries and activating other circuitry inside of the brain. And for some reason when my left hemisphere went offline because of the hemorrhage, then this experience of euphoria and at one with all that is, where everything is connected as atoms and molecules, would essentially be the same circuitry as a drug trip, the only difference being, of course, a drug trip is maybe a 12-hour experience that happens to the brain and mine ended up being an eight-year process.
GROSS: And yours was caused by incredible damage to the brain that nearly killed you.
Ms. TAYLOR: Right.
GROSS: So you describe floating from isolate moment to isolated moment because it's the left brain, the part of your brain that wasn't functioning, that makes connections between moments. Can you describe what it felt like to go from isolated moment to isolated moment where A no longer had any relationship with B?
Ms. TAYLOR: It was actually a very beautiful experience because when you're totally focused in the present moment, and you've having the experience of the sensation of being at one with all that is, there's boundaries - I mean you can look out into the field of whatever you're looking at right now and you can clearly distinguish edges and where a window is and where a window frame is or something else inside of your visual field, and I didn't have that ability to distinguish the details like that.
Instead, everything was just kind of radiating an energy, and it was captivating. I was caught up in the phenomenon that I was alive. I was this incredible life-force energy, made up of this incredible conglomeration of all these cells of my body, everything, including me, radiating energy and interconnected, but as soon as I would turn my back on this moment and on this scene, then that didn't exist for me anymore. It kind of drifted away, and then I had this new very exciting present moment.
And so I wasn't distracted with the past. I wasn't distracted with the future. I was just having this clarity of the present moment, which is great unless you want to learn something.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. TAYLOR: And as soon as we want to learn something, we bring information from the past into the present and then adapt it for the future. So it left me in a state of really cognitive inability.
GROSS: One of the many things I find amazing, though, about your description is that on the one hand you're feeling this sense of euphoria and oneness, being totally in the moment, an overwhelming sense of peace. At the same time you're still experiencing that incredible pain. You've got that pain in back of your eye, that pain in your brain, and there's still a part of your brain that knows that something is terribly wrong.
Can you talk about holding those two competing thoughts in your brain at the same time? Were they fighting each other? Was that sense of I'm in pain, something's really wrong, battling with the this is beautiful, I'm euphoric, you know, let's just keep continuing in the moment?
Ms. TAYLOR: I didn't really have the feeling that they were battling because I didn't have that kind of control. I was in one or I was in the other. I did feel as though my left hemisphere was hanging on with every ounce of energy it had to try to retain enough of my consciousness and get me back into this wave of clarity where I could reconnect with the external world, where I could get one step closer to orchestrating my rescue, but in the absence of that, when I would shift out into the right-hemisphere consciousness, there was such an experience of bliss and euphoria that I had zero desire to try to go back to the other and try to rescue myself because it was just so enticing.
And it was the only morning that was like that. It was - after that morning passed, then the left hemisphere had saved my life, but I had no language whatsoever by the time I woke up later that afternoon.
GROSS: One of the things the description you're giving us is reminding me of is some people's descriptions of near-death experiences, where they feel the sense of, like, warmth and euphoria and oneness, and they almost don't want to come back to Earth.
Ms. TAYLOR: Yeah, I think that it was a near-death experience in the way that if you can just conceive of the idea that your left hemisphere is no longer communicating with you with language. And you know, did you ever when you wake up in the morning and you're brushing your teeth and you're looking at yourself, did you ever wonder how it is you remember what your name is?
You know your name because your brain is telling you, oh, my name is Terry. This is what I do. This is who I am. This is where I live. This is my agenda for the day. But if you didn't have that, you would still exist, but you wouldn't be functioning as Terry Gross anymore. You wouldn't be functioning as the individual you define yourself to be.
So in the absence of our relationship to who we are in the external world, there's this incredible release of responsibility and stress and the physiological response that goes with any of that, and you know, when you allow yourself to shift into the present moment, it's very freeing. It's very peaceful. It feels very light, the connection to all that is. For me, it was an extreme experience of euphoria.
DAVIES: Jill Bolte Taylor speaking with Terry Gross. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview with Jill Bolte Taylor. She's a brain scientist whose book about her stroke and recovery is called "My Stroke of Insight."
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit more about the neuroscience of what happened to you, and then we'll get back to your experience of it. The brain is divided into two hemispheres. Where was your bleed? Your stroke was a bleed in the brain. What part of your brain was most affected?
Ms. TAYLOR: My hemorrhage happened in the left hemisphere of my brain, right near the center and deep into the temporal region. So the thing about blood in the brain is that brain cells, neurons, find blood to be toxic to them.
So there are all these barriers, the blood-brain barriers, different ways that the brain creates boundaries so that blood does not come in direct contact with neurons, and when you have a hemorrhage, of course, you've got blood everywhere that it does not belong, and it's coming in direct contact with neurons, and it's either killing them or shocking them so that they can no longer function.
So my left hemisphere started with a very small bleed, and then over time, over the course of four hours, the bleed got larger and larger and larger. As the blood clot got bigger and bigger, more functional abilities of my brain were rendered totally helpless and non-functional.
GROSS: And describe some more the differences between the left and the right brain.
Ms. TAYLOR: Well, the left hemisphere is all about our ability to communicate with the external world. So my ability to create sound through my vocal chords is part of my left hemisphere. I say the word dog, dog. Dog is a sound that my throat creates, but your brain then can, in your left hemisphere, place a meaning on the word dog, and you have two things happen, probably.
Your right hemisphere thinks about a dog. A picture of a dog flashes into your mind. That's going to happen in the right hemisphere. Or your left hemisphere is going to think of a specific dog that you know or a specific breed of dog.
So both hemispheres are functioning all the time, but the left hemisphere thinks in language, and it's really about our relationship with the past, our relationship with the future, our ability to think linearly, my ability to know that I have to put my socks on before I put my shoes on. That's linear thinking.
It's the ability to create a method and to follow that method, from first you do A, then B, then C, then D. So it's my logical, critically analyzing portion of my brain. It searches for differences instead of similarities.
The right hemisphere is the big picture of the present moment. So when I look out into the world, I see - I see everything around me. I'm not focusing on the details. I think in pictures and images. It's going to be, as far as language is concerned, it's going to be my ability to understand inflection or intonation of voice. So it's the more subtle body-language, facial-language ability to understand.
So the two hemispheres process information very differently, and as a result of that they think about things differently, they care about different things, and I believe they have very different personalities.
GROSS: During the morning of your stroke, when your ability to speak was wiped out, your sense of who you were was wiped out, one of your arms was paralyzed. You still managed to call for help, but it was a long, arduous process. Could you just briefly give us a sense of what you had to do, having lost so much of your cognitive abilities and physical abilities, what you had to do to call for help?
Ms. TAYLOR: Well, just to figure out that I was having a situation that was serious enough to call for help took a very long time, because I, of course, as I mentioned, never had a stroke before, so I didn't know, you know, I should pick up the phone and call 911 immediately while 911 is still inside of my mind. But for me I kept shifting out into this experience of euphoria, totally detached from any ability to think about or relate to the external world. And it wasn't until my right arm went totally paralyzed by my side that I realized, oh my gosh, I'm having a stroke, because that was a warning sign, paralysis in your body, a warning sign of stroke.
And so at that point I was really aware that I needed to get help, but I couldn't retain the idea long enough in order to act on it, and you know, at this point people say, well, why didn't you just call 911.
Well, the group of cells in my left hemisphere that understood numbers, the group of cells that understood what 911 was, were swimming in a pool of blood and no longer functional. I had a landlady downstairs home on maternity leave. I could have gone right down and asked her, but she didn't exist for me anymore because she was a part of a memory system that was no longer functional.
So eventually I did decide that I was going to call work, and I had to locate a business card that had my phone number at work on it. By the time I finally found my business card, and it was very difficult because visually when I looked at the business card, all I could see were pixels, and I could not distinguish what was a word from the background from the symbols.
So I could not read, and eventually I had to match the shape of the squiggle of the number to the match of the squiggle on the telephone pad in order to get that phone number dialed. And during that process I am drifting in and out of la-la land, so I had to wield my paralyzed arm like a stump and use my finger to cover the number, the squiggle that I had already dialed because otherwise I would not know that I had already dialed that.
So I was just very blessed to persevere through that process and to have somebody sitting at a desk by the time the phone call was made.
GROSS: You're obviously a very verbal person. What was it like for you to be unable to speak or comprehend language?
Ms. TAYLOR: Well, in the beginning it was really shocking because when I would have a wave of clarity, I could hear myself saying clearly in my mind, this is Jill, I need help. This is Jill. I'm having a stroke. And - but when I tried to get my throat to make that sound, just waaaaaahhhh came out, and that was - I did not know that I could not speak until I tried to speak, and that was absolutely shocking to me. Because you have to remember through the eyes of neuroscientist, through the eyes of a neuro-anatomist, my area of specialty is knowing which cells are communicating with which cells, and what do those circuits look like.
So I'm analyzing the deterioration and degeneration of my mind as I'm having this experience, and it was profound. It was a profound experience through the eyes of a scientist. At the same time, I knew that I had to get help or I was in a gravely disabled situation.
GROSS: You mentioned that on the morning of your stroke, you kept drifting in and out of this state of euphoria, but that euphoria wasn't there after you got to the hospital and kind of awakened later in the day or the next day. Can you talk about what it was like after the euphoria was behind you, when you were in a body controlled by a brain that was severely damaged by the stroke?
Ms. TAYLOR: You know, those were really devastating moments for me because I recognized that the brain, my brain, my left hemisphere, had an organic problem, and it was no longer capable of normal function, and just prior to arriving at the emergency room, where the doctors would stabilize my life and give me a new chance at life, right before that I had curled up into a little fetal ball and I felt all of the energy of me just shift and lift, and to me I felt - the best way for me to describe it with language is I surrendered, I surrendered to my death. And so I essentially, at that point, all that morning I had been hold on, hold on, hold on, just hold on. Who knows what I'm holding onto, but I'm holding on, and at that point I was no longer holding on. I had let go.
And so I felt that I had died, but I didn't have any of the near-death light experience. But I woke then later that afternoon, and I was shocked, absolutely shocked, that I was still alive and that I was still in this body, if you will, and yet the brain was no longer capable of functioning.
So I was not necessarily happy to find myself in that condition, and it was - I really had to grieve the death of the woman whom I had been because I had none of her memories. I had none of her recollection of her life, and I was essentially now an infant.
DAVIES: Jill Bolte Taylor's book, "My Stroke of Insight," comes out in paperback later this month. She'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.
We're listening to Terry's interview recorded last year with Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain scientist who had a severe stroke in late 1996 that left her unable to speak, write, or recall her own life. She recovered slowly over eight years. Her memoir, "My Stroke of Insight," comes out in paperback this month. In the book she describes what she experienced as a stroke victim and uses her knowledge as a neuroanatomist to analyze the losses and new perceptions caused by the bleed in the left hemisphere of her brain. When we left off, Taylor was describing her shock when she woke up in the hospital to find she was still alive. She said she felt her sense of self had died with her memory loss.
GROSS: You didn't have memories that really defined who you were, you couldn't speak, you were having trouble understanding language, but did you still have some kind of residual sense of meaning? Were there things that even though you couldn't understand and couldn't express you still knew?
Dr. JILL BOLTE TAYLOR (Author, "My Stroke of Insight"): You know it's interesting because I knew I knew all this stuff but I just couldn't access any of it. And so I kind of see it as my brain was filled with files. And before, to get any information out, I'd just go on a search and retrieve and I'd go into the drawer and I'd find the right file and I'd get the data and I had all this information. And at that point it was as though all the filing cabinets were slammed closed and pushed beyond my reach. So it was like I knew I should know all this stuff, but I didn't know. I didn't have access to any of that information. And there's no guarantee, of course, that you're ever going to find that again.
GROSS: Well did you find it again? I mean did you learn about who you were from scratch, from other people telling you? Or did those file drawers eventually open up?
Dr. BOLTE TAYLOR: For the first several years I had to be taught everything. And it wasn't probably until at least year six, or seven, or eight or even now that I am aware that I know things about my past that nobody ever taught me. But, you know, there's a lot of information that I don't have. But, you know, if you had asked me before the stroke what my 10th year birthday cake looked like I wouldn't have been able to tell you. And if you ask me now I can't tell you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. BOLTE TAYLOR: So you know, a lot of the data, I had been a very intuitive person anyway. So I think intuitively, which is not detailed based. It's more association and building of the big picture basis. So I do know that I have learned things. But my science for example, I had to learn my science from scratch. I had the advantage that I didn't lose my right hemisphere so I still understood after enough time for the swelling in my brain to go down and after brain surgery I had enough awareness that I still understood, for example, the head of the pancreas and how the duodenum fits around the head of the pancreas. I had the picture in my mind but I didn't have any language. So I had to go back and relearn all the terminology of all of my science, but I, again, had the advantage that I already had the three dimensional picture and understanding from still having a functional right hemisphere.
GROSS: You write in your book, without the language center telling me I am Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, I am a neuroanatomist, I felt no obligation to being her anymore. So when you'd forgotten so much of who you were, when you'd lost so many of your memories, what are some of the things about your basic identity that you think changed as you slowly recovered?
Dr. BOLTE TAYLOR: You know it was very freeing to no longer be attached to whom she had been, whom I had been, prior to the hemorrhage because she was a very smart woman and she had a quite a high pressure job, and...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. BOLTE TAYLOR: ... you know in the absence of being attached to who she had been and what she was doing there was a sense of freedom. And since I didn't have any of her memories or any of her knowledge or any of her attachment to relationships, at the same I wasn't attached to her emotional baggage. And you know I had been, I grew up in a family in the Midwest with a brother who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and I grew up to study the brain because of my relationship with my brother and trying to understand what is different about his brain that he experiences hallucinations and delusion and I don't? I can attach my dreams to my reality and I can make my dreams come true, so all of the things that had motivated her before I didn't share any of that. So I kind of got to start over again and I had no really cognitive capacity in the beginning to have any real intellect, so I didn't feel the pressure to become who she had been. And it was very freeing for me.
GROSS: Can you give us an example of what you consider to be one of the most and least effective form of therapies that you experienced during the recovery period from your stroke?
Dr. BOLTE TAYLOR: I did not experience actually much normal traditional rehabilitation. I did have speech therapy where I would go in just about every 10 days. And, but it was my mother. My mother came to my - back into my world and she took over everything. She recognized I was an infant again and we began with rocking. And we began reestablishing a new mother-daughter relationship. And my mother was convinced that nothing knew better, no one knew better than my brain what it needed in order for it to recovery. And so if I was tired she allowed me to sleep. And this is very nonconventional for general rehabilitation for individuals with stroke. And, but my mother, if I wanted to sleep for 12 hours she would let me sleep for 12 hours. And then if I was awake for 20 minutes she would feed me and take me to the restroom. And if I had any energy left over she would give me something to do. She was a teacher.
She had spent her whole life as a mathematics professor at a college. So it was very important to her to pay attention to my needs. And eventually I moved to a six-hour sleep cycle and then I had some energy to work. So for us the best therapy was sleep. And unfortunately in our society it is traditional to take someone, a stroke survivor, and wake them up at 6:30 in the morning, give them amphetamines to make the brain more alert, prop them up in wheelchairs, take them out into a social environment, subject them to input stimulation in the form of loud TVs and radios, and say you know, if you're ever going to recover you have to act like you're going to recover, and that was exactly not what my brain needed.
And then another thing my mother did was she stood as guard at the door for visitation. You know we're in a society where someone is ill we want to go and visit them. Well you have to be very careful. I learned that there were two types of people in the world when I was that ill. There were people who brought me energy and there were people who took energy away from me. And so mom noticed that when I had visitors I would use all my energy up and have nothing left over for working and that wasn't okay with her. So she eventually stood as guard at the door and if someone came in, they came in for maybe five minutes, they brought me love, there was no drama-trauma, there was no oh woe is Jill. It was you're Jill. You're going to be fine. She really insisted that people bring me positive energy.
DAVIES: Jill Bolte Taylor speaking with Terry Gross. More after a break. This FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview with Jill Bolte Taylor. She's a brain scientist whose book about her stroke and recovery is called "My Stroke of Insight."
GROSS: How did you learn to speak again?
Dr. BOLTE TAYLOR: Well, I learned how to speak fluently again really by watching a videotape of a presentation that I had given just a few months prior to the hemorrhage. I had given a presentation at a national NAMI conference, I had had it professionally videotaped and I watched that video over and over and over again. And by watching the woman I had been I learned to speak the language. I learned her inflection of her voice. I learned how to hold a microphone. I learned how to speak to an audience. So I really learned a lot about how to be me.
GROSS: During your eight years of recovery were you ever able to go back to that euphoric place that you experienced during the stroke?
Dr. BOLTE TAYLOR: Actually I've never left that space of euphoria because it's always there. My right hemisphere is always turned on and when I lost the left hemisphere and I had the purity of that right hemisphere euphoric experience then that was my total existence. And I was very blessed to live inside of an absolutely silent mind for two and a half weeks up until my brain surgery and then for about two and a half weeks following the brain surgery. So for five weeks I sat in total silence and I just experienced my life. And I would sit on my couch with this very goofy grin and my mother would look at me and she would think what, why are you so happy? What, you know, how can you be in this condition but be happy? And it was - I didn't experience any of the left hemisphere connection to the external world that would bring me my stress experience.
And then as my left hemisphere started to - the swelling went down and I became capable then of learning language again then it was a matter of picking and choosing. You know I made a deal with myself that I would recover and I would become as normal as I could be, which meant giving life to that left hemisphere again, as long as I did not have to sacrifice the experience of what I had gained and that was this experience of bliss, and peace, and euphoria. So I have the ability to in the moment of a thought turn off my language, stop any focus on how important I am in the world and come back to the present moment experience of joy.
GROSS: You know what you're describing sounds like this state that a lot of people try to achieve through meditation, through some form of mystical pursuit. Some people would see it as a religious experience. I know your father was an Episcopal minister - am I right?
Dr. BOLTE TAYLOR: Right.
GROSS: So you grew up with the knowledge of religion. Do you see any religious aspects or any religious connection to what you've experienced?
Dr. BOLTE TAYLOR: Right.
GROSS: That euphoria?
Dr. BOLTE TAYLOR: Right. I do think that my experience of that right hemisphere bliss is what other populations would describe as a spiritual experience. And I think we're wired to have spirituality. I think that that's why so many of us have an experience of spirituality. To me, religion is the story that different people tell themselves. Because, you know, ultimately whether you're Christian-based or you're Buddhist-based or whatever your choice of religion is, there's a story that you tell yourself that gets you, allows you to quiet your mind, whether it's through mantra or whether it's through prayer, to quiet that left hemisphere language center in order for you to be able to feel that you are in relationship with something that is greater than you are as a single individual. So I do think all religions are the left hemisphere story that helps us get into the right hemisphere experience.
GROSS: Now for a lot of people it's a real struggle to quiet you know what's often called the chatter in your mind, all those thoughts that are distracting you from anything that you're doing or from any peace that you can have because there's always something to worry about or think about or plan. So you find it easy to quiet all of that now? You could just turn it down, turn down the volume?
Dr. BOLTE TAYLOR: It is. It's very easy for me because I don't like the way that it feels inside of my body. And I think that one of the things that I gained when I lost my cognitive thinking mind was I gained a real perception of how everything feels inside of my body because that's what I was left with. And when that worrying voice wanted to come back online, I didn't like the way that it felt inside of my body. When you stop and you think about what your body feels like when you're angry or when you're worrying or when you're planning something and you're stretching for whatever it is that you can get, but there's a lack of satisfaction going on there, it has a feeling inside of your body, and your, the chest gets really tight and shoulders go up, and the furrow in the brow goes down and you clench your jaw and there's just this feeling that goes with all of that and I don't like the way that that feels in my body. And as soon as I clamp my jaw my brain says to me left hemisphere, girl, you are in your left hemisphere. Do you want to be there? And there are times that it's very appropriate for me to be in my left hemisphere and to be having that overall experience. But I don't want to stay and hang out there anymore because it physically does not feel healthy to my body.
GROSS: Before the stroke you did research at Harvard. And one of the things you were very active in, I think you are still active in, this is trying to convince people to donate their brains after their death to the Harvard Brain Bank because you need brain tissue to continue the kind of research that's being done at Harvard. So you did a lot of lecture tours before your stroke, convincing people to donate their brains and you became known as the singing scientist in part because you wrote this little tissue bank jingle and with singers on your tours.
Now you say that after your left brain was put out of commission by the stroke, it kind of, in some ways, freed up the part that was inhibiting your right brain - the music and visual side of your brain. So have you been singing more as a result of that? Has your singing changed or you're singing more than the Brain Tissue Bank jingle now?
Dr. TAYLOR: I do still sing. It was actually quite the gift, because before the stroke, I really could not sing in tune. And oddly, after the stroke I managed to actually be able to sing in tune. But I do still sing for brains and because there is this shortage of tissue available for us to better understand, at a biological level, what is going on in the brains of individuals who would have a diagnosis of schizophrenia or schizoaffective or bipolar or anxiety or OCD, what is different at the cellular level.
And although we have modern technology, it's such a gift to scientists to be able to look at the cellular level so that we can really try to figure out how to help these individuals.
GROSS: Those of us who were close to someone who had a stroke have so many questions about what goes on. And I think most people who have had strokes, can't summon up the memories of it nearly as well as you can. A lot of people don't remember what happened at all, or remember very little. What are some of the questions people who've had strokes, or people who've had close friends or family who've suffered strokes - what are some of the questions that they ask you to try to explain what happened or what the experience was like, what lay behind the most confusing behavior?
Dr. TAYLOR: You know, I think that everyone who has a stroke has, of course, their own unique experience. But to be able to give language to the experience has been what many people have said to me. Another thing is, you know, I think it's really important that those of us with left hemispheres, who would project drama and trauma onto the experience of stroke, we would project our own fears onto the experience that this person is having and that person may not be having as terrible a time as we are projecting onto them.
And I think it's very important that we love them. We come to them with love and celebration and gratitude for what they still have. So to me its kind of approaching it with more of an open heart and an open mind and being very cautious of what of our own fears are we projecting onto that person when that may not be their reality.
GROSS: You know, your stroke happened in the left side of your brain. The bleed was in the left side of your brain. So it left you feeling partially in a state of euphoria. Other people who have strokes might not be nearly so lucky, so to speak, and the forward part of their brain might be quieted and dysfunctional. And the part of the brain that feels anger or irritation or it's just kind of caught up and worry or noise might be the dominant part, the part that lives on.
Dr. TAYLOR: Right.
GROSS: So I mean is it possible if some people who have strokes have the opposite experience of what you have and that they're trapped in the cycle of anger and pain?
Dr. TAYLOR: It is true. And I've heard from some stroke survivors who have said to me, you know, your experience was totally different than mine. And I get so caught up in the details that I cannot find my peace. And they give me examples - and this one guy said, you know, I go to the symphony and I listen to the symphony and I want to get lost in the music. I want to - I want my imagination to soar and I want to just go where the music takes me, and I can't get there anymore because my mind is now breaking the symphony down into - oh that's the flute - oh that's the bassoon - oh that's the cellos. And so it's this constant analysis. And I have had individuals who have told me, you know, I struggle now. I used to be very prayerful and now I can't find that big picture. I can't find that experience that there is something that is greater than I am. And to these individuals, you know, I come right back to the - I think most important message of my whole journey is our human brain is resilient. It is designed to heal itself. I firmly believe that.
And you can try to re-teach new cells in order to feel that again and in order to create new function where you have had cells that have been lost.
GROSS: Jill Bolte Taylor, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. TAYLOR: I really appreciate it, Terry.
DAVIES: Jill Bolte Taylor speaking with Terry Gross recorded last year. Taylor's memoir "My Stroke of Insight" comes out in paperback later this month. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new French film "Summer Hours." This is FRESH AIR.
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