GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz, and on the show today, The Unknown Brain, the mystery of how billions of neurons make us who we are. And the one brain that you think you might know, your own, that might be the biggest mystery of all.
Could you ever have imagined that your brain would be the one that would kind of define your life and your career?
JILL BOLTE-TAYLOR: (Laughter). No.
RAZ: This is Dr. Jill Bolte-Taylor.
BOLTE-TAYLOR: I'm a trained neuroanatomist.
RAZ: And about 20 years ago, Jill was doing lab work at Harvard. She had been researching other people's brains for years, particularly brains with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, brains that just didn't seem to function properly. And she was widely recognized as a rising star in the field. But then, one morning - it was the morning of December 10, 1996 - something happened to Jill's own brain.
BOLTE-TAYLOR: Once I awoke, I could not walk, talk, read, write. I could not recall any of the details of my life.
(SOUNDBITE OF AMBULANCE SIREN)
BOLTE-TAYLOR: Jill Bolte-Taylor died that day.
(SOUNDBITE OF AMBULANCE SIREN)
RAZ: Jill was having a massive stroke on the left side of her brain. And soon, she'd be rushed to the emergency room. Jill told the story on the TED stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
BOLTE-TAYLOR: I'm riding in an ambulance across Boston to Mass. General Hospital. And I curl up into a little fetal ball. And just like a balloon with the last, last bit of air just (exhaling) right out of the balloon, I just felt my energy lift. And just - I felt my spirit surrender. And in that moment, I knew that I was no longer the choreographer of my life. And either the doctors rescue my body and give me a second chance at life, or this was perhaps my moment of transition.
RAZ: Jill's stroke wiped out almost everything she could do and who she was. As she later wrote in her book, in an instant, she became a woman trapped inside the body of an infant. And yet, today...
BOLTE-TAYLOR: If I could go back to that day and have the stroke or not have the stroke, I am so grateful that I had the stroke experience.
RAZ: The thing is, on that morning of the stroke, even though she was a brain scientist at Harvard, Jill, at least initially, didn't know what was happening to her.
BOLTE-TAYLOR: I woke up to a pounding pain behind my left eye. And it was the kind of pain, caustic pain, that you get when you bite into ice cream. And it just gripped me. And then it released me. And then it just gripped me. And then it released me. And it was very unusual for me to ever experience any kind of pain. So I thought, OK, I'll just start my normal routine. So I got up, and I jumped onto my cardio glider, which is a full-body, full-exercise machine.
BOLTE-TAYLOR: And I'm jamming away on this thing. And I'm realizing that my hands look like primitive claws grasping onto the bar. And I thought, that's very peculiar. And I looked down at my body and I thought, whoa, I am a weird-looking thing. And it was as though my consciousness had shifted away from my normal perception of reality, where I'm the person on the machine having the experience, to some esoteric space where I'm witnessing myself having this experience. And it was all very peculiar, and my headache was just getting worse. So I get off the machine. And I'm walking across my living room floor. And I realize that everything inside of my body has slowed way down. And every step is very rigid. There's no fluidity to my pace. And there's this constriction in my area perception. So I'm just focused on internal systems. And I'm standing in my bathroom, getting ready to step into the shower. And I could actually hear the dialogue inside of my body. I heard a little voice saying, OK, you muscles, you've got to contract. And you muscles, you relax. And then, I lost my balance. And I'm propped up against the wall. And I look down at my arm, and I realize that I can no longer define the boundaries of my body because the atoms and the molecules of my arm blended with the atoms and molecules of the wall. And all I could detect was this energy, energy. And I'm asking myself, what is wrong with me? What is going on?
RAZ: Knowing what you knew about the brain, were you almost, like, mapping it in real time?
BOLTE-TAYLOR: Yes, on the morning of the stroke, it was a pure mapping experience. So as soon as I was having a problem with the volume of the way that the water hit the tub and there's this incredible amplification of the sound...
(SOUNDBITE OF RUNNING WATER)
BOLTE-TAYLOR: Well, you know, I immediately have a visualization of the circuit of the sound system in understanding amplification and knowing that I'm passing information through my brain stem. And I'm having problems at that level. And brain stem is the potential for death. This is now a do-or-die situation. So, yes, I'm mapping as I'm losing circuit by circuit. At the same time, I'm going, what is wrong with me - because of course I've never had a stroke before.
RAZ: What's amazing to me is - and in some ways what makes it even more terrifying to hear is how...
BOLTE-TAYLOR: Remarkable, Guy, remarkable - not terrifying, remarkable.
RAZ: That's the thing, I mean...
RAZ: ...You, like, the way you describe it is that you had control. Like, you were calm. You were rational.
BOLTE-TAYLOR: Well, I didn't know how severe it was. And, you know, people always ask me, was it to your advantage to be a brain scientist or not? And I think that on the morning of the stroke, it may not have been an advantage because I was fascinated instead of panicking.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
BOLTE-TAYLOR: So it's like OK, OK. I've got a problem, but then I immediately drifted right back out into the consciousness. And I affectionately refer to this space as Lalaland, but it was beautiful there. Imagine what it would be like to be totally disconnected from your brain chatter that connects you to the external world. So here I am in this space. And my job and any stress related to my job - it was gone, and I felt lighter in my body. And imagine what it would feel like to lose 37 years of emotional baggage.
BOLTE-TAYLOR: Oh, I felt euphoria, euphoria. And in that moment my right arm went totally paralyzed by my side. Then I realized, oh, my gosh, I'm having a stroke. I'm having a stroke. And then the next thing my brain says to me is, wow, this is so cool.
BOLTE-TAYLOR: This is so cool. How many brain scientists have the opportunity to study their own brain from the inside out?
BOLTE-TAYLOR: And then it crosses my mind - but I'm a very busy woman.
BOLTE-TAYLOR: I don't have time for a stroke.
(SOUNDBITE OF AMBULANCE SIREN)
RAZ: Jill of course didn't really have a choice. She was rushed to surgery. The doctors took a blood clot the size of a golf ball out of her brain. And when she woke up, it was as if her brain was like a computer that was booting up for the first time.
BOLTE-TAYLOR: For example, my mother would ask me what I wanted for lunch, and it was file opening time. She would say, you know, do you want to have a peanut butter sandwich? And I'd go hunting, you know, where's peanut butter? Is there a file in my brain that understands peanut butter? And if there was, then I would say OK. And then she would say how about tuna fish? And I'd go hunting for the file in my brain that understood what tuna fish was. And as soon as we hit a file that I couldn't go in and hunt for and find some kind of association to, then we would relive that. So then she would give me tuna fish so that I would have that experience. And I had to learn everything. We didn't know if I would have language again because of where the hemorrhage had happened, this blood clot that was pushing on the fibers running between my ability to create sound - create language - as well as to place meaning on language. But I had to learn vocabulary from the beginning. I had to learn what emotions were. I had to be able to describe to my mother what I was feeling inside of my body. It took her constant care and, boy, it took a lot of sleep, and that was key for my healing.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: It took eight long years of rehabilitation before Jill felt anything like the person she'd been before. And by the end of it, she realized her stroke taught her more about the brain than years of research in her lab at Harvard, and not just about its resilience, but about how our brain makes us who we are in ways we might never fully understand.
Are you a different person? Like, are you the same person you were before December 10, 1996?
BOLTE-TAYLOR: I'm - OK, so the way I look at this is a new character has come online. My color scheme that I like to dress in is different. Before, you would look in my closet and all you would see is red, white and black - stripes, polka dots, any version. But it would be red, white and black because every day I would get up and I would want to wear red, white or black, so why even keep the other stuff in the closet? Today I'm sitting here. I'm in blue jeans, which I never wore before. I always wore corduroys, and now I'm in fluorescent green. I love the florescent colors.
BOLTE-TAYLOR: So this never would have happened with that other character. So, no, I see myself as a very different person with a very different value structure than I had before. And there was a lot of pain in my past that got relieved. And wasn't that a lovely thing to be able to hit the reset button on my emotional circuitry so that I'm then capable of functioning fresh and new without any antagonism towards anybody? I didn't know if there was anybody I was supposed be mad at because it was all gone.
RAZ: So you said earlier that you were grateful for your stroke?
BOLTE-TAYLOR: Yeah. You know, there are hundreds, thousands of scientists who can do the work that I was doing in the lab, but for me to be able to have this internal experience of watching my own brain completely deteriorate in its ability to process all information and then to go through the experience of surgery and recovery has given me such an insight into my own workings of my brain, and fortunately an insight into what does it take in order for a person to actually recover from a brain trauma? Now we understand that there is neurogenesis. We do grow some new neurons. We know that there is neuroplasticity. People are capable of recovering from brain trauma. And that's a completely different perspective than 15 years ago.
RAZ: Jill Bolte-Taylor. Her book about all this is called "My Stroke Of Insight." You can see her full talk, one of the most popular ever, at ted.com. On the show today, The Unknown Brain.
RAZ: Are there mysteries of the brain that are better left unsolved?
BOLTE-TAYLOR: I don't think so.
RAZ: Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz. And this is the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
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