Sunday, May 25, 2008

Jill Bolte Taylor's Stroke of Insight

by Leslie Kaufman
The New York Times
May 25, 2008

Jill Bolte Taylor was a neuroscientist working at Harvard’s brain research center when she experienced nirvana.

But she did it by having a stroke.

On Dec. 10, 1996, Dr. Taylor, then 37, woke up in her apartment near Boston with a piercing pain behind her eye. A blood vessel in her brain had popped. Within minutes, her left lobe — the source of ego, analysis, judgment and context — began to fail her. Oddly, it felt great.

The incessant chatter that normally filled her mind disappeared. Her everyday worries — about a brother with schizophrenia and her high-powered job — untethered themselves from her and slid away.

Her perceptions changed, too. She could see that the atoms and molecules making up her body blended with the space around her; the whole world and the creatures in it were all part of the same magnificent field of shimmering energy.

“My perception of physical boundaries was no longer limited to where my skin met air,” she has written in her memoir, “My Stroke of Insight,” which was just published by Viking.

After experiencing intense pain, she said, her body disconnected from her mind. “I felt like a genie liberated from its bottle,” she wrote in her book. “The energy of my spirit seemed to flow like a great whale gliding through a sea of silent euphoria.”

While her spirit soared, her body struggled to live. She had a clot the size of a golf ball in her head, and without the use of her left hemisphere she lost basic analytical functions like her ability to speak, to understand numbers or letters, and even, at first, to recognize her mother. A friend took her to the hospital. Surgery and eight years of recovery followed.

Her desire to teach others about nirvana, Dr. Taylor said, strongly motivated her to squeeze her spirit back into her body and to get well.

This story is not typical of stroke victims. Left-brain injuries don’t necessarily lead to blissful enlightenment; people sometimes sink into a helplessly moody state: their emotions run riot. Dr. Taylor was also helped because her left hemisphere was not destroyed, and that probably explains how she was able to recover fully.

Today, she says, she is a new person, one who “can step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere” on command and be “one with all that is.”

To her it is not faith, but science. She brings a deep personal understanding to something she long studied: that the two lobes of the brain have very different personalities. Generally, the left brain gives us context, ego, time, logic. The right brain gives us creativity and empathy. For most English-speakers, the left brain, which processes language, is dominant. Dr. Taylor’s insight is that it doesn’t have to be so.

Her message, that people can choose to live a more peaceful, spiritual life by sidestepping their left brain, has resonated widely.

In February, Dr. Taylor spoke at the Technology, Entertainment, Design conference (known as TED), the annual forum for presenting innovative scientific ideas. The result was electric. After her 18-minute address was posted as a video on TED’s Web site, she become a mini-celebrity. More than two million viewers have watched her talk, and about 20,000 more a day continue to do so. An interview with her was also posted on Oprah Winfrey’s Web site, and she was chosen as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world for 2008.

She also receives more than 100 e-mail messages a day from fans. Some are brain scientists, who are fascinated that one of their own has had a stroke and can now come back and translate the experience in terms they can use. Some are stroke victims or their caregivers who want to share their stories and thank her for her openness.

But many reaching out are spiritual seekers, particularly Buddhists and meditation practitioners, who say her experience confirms their belief that there is an attainable state of joy.

“People are so taken with it,” said Sharon Salzberg, a founder of the Insight Mediation Society in Barre, Mass. “I keep getting that video in e-mail. I must have 100 copies.”

She is excited by Dr. Taylor’s speech because it uses the language of science to describe an occurrence that is normally ethereal. Dr. Taylor shows the less mystically inclined, she said, that this experience of deep contentment “is part of the capacity of the human mind.”

Since the stroke, Dr. Taylor has moved to Bloomington, Ind., an hour from where she was raised in Terre Haute and where her mother, Gladys Gillman Taylor, who nursed her back to health, still lives.

Originally, Dr. Taylor became a brain scientist — she has a Ph.D. in life sciences with a specialty in neuroanatomy — because she has a mentally ill brother who suffers from delusions that he is in direct contact with Jesus. And for her old research lab at Harvard, she continues to speak on behalf of the mentally ill.

But otherwise, she has dialed back her once loaded work schedule. Her house is on a leafy cul-de-sac minutes from Indiana University, which she attended as an undergraduate and where she now teaches at the medical school.

Her foyer is painted a vibrant purple. She greets a stranger at the door with a warm hug. When she talks, her pale blue eyes make extended contact.

Never married, she lives with her dog and two cats. She unselfconsciously calls her mother, 82, her best friend.

She seems bemused but not at all put off by the hundreds who have reached out to her on a spiritual level. Religious ecstatics who claim to see angels have asked her to appear on their radio and television programs.

She has declined these offers. Although her father is an Episcopal minister and she was raised in his church, she cannot be counted among the traditionally faithful. “Religion is a story that the left brain tells the right brain,” she said.

Still, Dr. Taylor says, “nirvana exists right now.”

“There is no doubt that it is a beautiful state and that we can get there,” she said.

Read more here.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

See the video of Dr. Taylor's TED speech of February 2008 here. TED features 18-minute talks by the world's most fascinating thinkers and doers.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read "My Stroke of Insight" in one sitting - I couldn't put it down. I laughed. I cried. It was a fantastic book (I heard it's a NYTimes Bestseller and I can see why!), but I also think it will be the start of a new, transformative Movement! No one wants to have a stroke as Jill Bolte Taylor did, but her experience can teach us all how to live better lives. Her TED.com speech was one of the most incredibly moving, stimulating, wonderful videos I've ever seen. Her Oprah Soul Series interviews were fascinating. They should make a movie of her life so everyone sees it. This is the Real Deal and gives me hope for humanity.

Thursday, May 29, 2008 11:18:00 PM  

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