June 07, 2008
Jill Bolte Taylor was a 37-year-old brain scientist when she suffered a stroke in late 1996. As she narrates in "My Stroke of Insight" (Viking $27.50), she realized that her left brain was impaired: it took her 45 minutes to recall the phone number of a colleague (remembering 911 was impossible), and another half-hour to locate her doctor's number on a business card.
Her brain was being flooded with blood, the hemorrhage due to a rare AVM (arteriovenous malformation).
But, without the ego control of her left brain, her right brain took over her consciousness with a sense of "flow," of being one with the universe and lost in wordless wonder. Fortunately, her colleague surmised her brain trauma over the phone -- language skills were also lost, even though she could form words in her head -- and got her to a Boston hospital. Thus began her eight-year journey of recovery.
Taylor writes from a unique perspective about how the medical system should assist stroke and brain injury victims.
Her background as a neuroanatomist not only gave her special empathy for such victims, it meant that she could diagnose her own crisis and ramp up her determination to rebuild all the skills and knowledge (from spelling to walking) that the stroke had stolen from her.
Just a few months after surgery to remove the clot, Taylor was able to address a meeting of the National Association for Mental Illness, for whom she had been a spokesperson.
Her mother was instrumental in her recovery; she worked with Taylor full-time as she had as an infant to rediscover colours, shapes, letters and how to use a spoon.
Through the years of regaining her abilities, Jill struggled to hold on to that sense of well-being, that Nirvana, which her right brain had found, unfettered by her logical, language- and memory-based left brain.
While exploring emotions as if for the first time, she could shed the baggage they had previously been encumbered with.
"Have you ever noticed how these negative internal thought patterns have the tendency to generate increased levels of inner hostility and/or raised levels of anxiety?"
Taylor's mission is twofold.
To improve the compassion of family and caregivers towards stroke, brain injury and mentally ill patients, and to urge all of us to cultivate right-brain awareness.
The latter is the grateful realization that our trillions of cells vibrate with universal energy. She suggests meditation and mindfulness techniques, such as noticing your breathing, to cultivate insights which she was able to achieve thanks to her stroke.
The taxonomy of left and right brain functions adds a dimension that philosophers from ancient times to the 20th century lacked. The location of the seat of consciousness has long been debated but never reduced to mere neurons and cells.
For atheistic scientists like Richard Dawkins who claim that religion has outlived its usefulness, neuroanatomies begs the question of where in the brain does consciousness of self and of God exist.
Scientific materialism leaves no room for notions of God-mind, but as David Berlinski points out in "The Devil's Delusion - Atheism and its Scientific Pretension" (Crown $27.95) such a paradigm is wrong-headed (pun intended).
Science and religion are not rivals but rather different responses to the human condition. The search for meaning and purpose in life goes beyond what the ever-expanding circle of scientific facts can tell us. We still need "a story."
Isn't it interesting that a hard-nosed brain scientist, thanks to the baby-step relearning of life skills following her stroke, can point us to a mystical awareness that all our (right) brains share. I heartily recommend her book.
We're all blessed with chance to expand our minds, hopefully without the blowup of an arteriovenous malformation.
Chuck Erion is co-owner of Words Worth Books in Waterloo.