Thomas Holbrook's Reviews > My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey

My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor
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's review
Sep 22, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: memior
Read in February, 2011

The study of the brain is in its infancy. Some researchers have indicated that we understand as much about the function of the human brain today as we understood the functions of the computer in the early 1900's. Jill Bolte Taylor was on the leading edge of that learning as a Neuroanatomist at Harvard Medical School. She knew what different parts of the brain did and had a good grasp upon how those parts did what they did while daily learning more of those processes. This was true until 7:00 the morning of 10 December 1996 when she suffered a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. For the next eight years she worked to restore what was lost on that morning in December. The book deals intensely with the first days after the stroke and she is eloquent in this narrative, particularly when she speaks of the first four hours of the event. The last half of the book speaks to what she learned, or the “insights,” she gained from the A.V.M. (Arteriovenous Malformation) stroke and those lessons are dramatic, to say the least.
When Dr. Taylor awoke that morning, she “knew” something was “off” in her body. For the next four hours she scientifically observed herself having a major stroke. When she realized what was occurring, when her right arm fell to her side, she remarked to herself, “Oh my gosh, I’m having a stroke! . . . . Wow, this is cool! (p. 44). The opportunity of a well educated, highly intelligent, extremely articulate scientist having VERY original research into her field of expertise is a gift, one she is sharing with the world. Dr. Taylor delivers that gift in a straight forward, easily read manner.

Her account of the things she learns as a result of the stroke is akin to reading a report of people who are advocates of meditation or are deeply Spiritually attuned. She speaks as a trained observer, not a devotee of any religious sect, yet her observations speak of her experiencing “being at one” (p.41), “a state of peaceful grace” (p.43), “tranquility, safety, blessedness, euphoria, and omniscience” and a “yearning to be released completely form the captivity of this physical form, which throbbed with pain”(p.49). Those moments were experienced by her as, and because of, the stroke occurred, damaging extensively the left hemisphere of her brain, leaving the right hemisphere to function freely. As the right hemisphere is the seat of connection, nonlinear thinking, timeless experience and seeing “the big picture,” her experience of the stroke reflects those qualities, which are the qualities similar to religious experience.
Dr. Taylor now insists that her “being one with all” is only a thought away. As she recovered the functions of her left hemisphere, she used her new knowledge to refuse those traits she had before the stroke (intense anger, pettiness, jealousy, holding grudges, etc.), seeing them as a useless drain on her energy. She offers that everyone can cease those behaviors as well, using only what is readily available to all - their brains. The results of doing so can be amazing, life changing, mystical, almost magical. But it is not magic, it is science.
This makes the discussion of religious experience versus scientific evidence especially pointed. As more evidence of the “religious brain” becomes more available, those of us who are “of the household of faith” could be seen as having little choice in believing, as we have a brain that is predisposed to that behavior. However, Dr. Taylor’s insights support the understanding that all have a choice in how each will act/believe. She could have renewed her old habits of anger, jealousy, etc., she chooses not to, understanding that she could behave differently than her brain was telling her, as she learned “that there are enormous gaps between what I know and what I think I know” (p.144). Irrespective of chemistry or belief, it is dependent upon the individual to decide how she/he will live. In the language of Freud (science) are we predisposed but not limited to certain behaviors or do we have to behave in certain way because “that is how we were made,” and in the language of Zion (faith), are we predestined to (or against) faith or do we have freewill? The debate deepens.

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