Transcript for Jill Bolte Taylor on "My Stroke of Insight"

Jim Fleming: Harvard Trained Brain Scientist Jill Bolte Taylor found an unexpected shortcut to inner peace, a path most of us would prefer not to take. In her memoir My Stroke of Insight, Taylor tells the story of the unexpected stroke that wiped out part of her brains left hemisphere, the weird euphoria that resulted, and the long and arduous process of recovery.

Anne Strainchamps asked Jill Bolte Taylor to describe what happened on December 10th, 1996.

Jill Bolte Taylor: On the morning of the stroke I woke up, and the first thing that I really realized was that I had this pulsing pain behind my left eye. I had never had a stroke before, of course. I had never had a hemorrhage, so I didn't automatically assume the worst. And I just got up and went into my exercise room and I thought, getting my body moving again, getting the blood dissipating through my brain would be a good thing, so I jumped onto my Cardio-Glider and I was exercising on this thing realizing that as I looked down at my hands they looked like primitive claws grasping onto this bar.

Anne Strainchamps: How long did it take before you realized you were having a stroke?

Taylor: It was probably 45 minutes to an hour, and it wasn't until my right arm went totally paralyzed, and that to me was the warning sign of stroke. Everything else was just peculiar weird neurological stuff.

Strainchamps: Did you ever begin to feel that you were dying?

Taylor: I did, I, on the morning of the stroke, after my colleague came and gave me help and took me to the first hospital and the first hospital ran a CAT Scan on my brain and it showed this major hemorrhage in the left hemisphere. And then they shipped by ambulance across Boston to Mass General Hospital. And at that point, I just really didn't have any energy left in my body, and I curled up into a little ball, and the best way for me to describe it, is I felt my energy shift. I felt my whole body become lighter. I surrendered, if you will, and I knew I was no longer the one choreographing my life and either the doctors rescue my body and give me a second chance at life or this was going to be the moment of my death. And I have to say that it was, you know, you hear about these stories about that's it's an extremely peaceful experience, well, for me it was a total experience of euphoria. So I essentially found a space of nirvana.

Strainchamps: Was it a disappointment to begin to come back?

Taylor: It wasn't a disappointment but it was definitely a process and for me it was a decision, because I did feel this incredible sense of euphoria, I lost the boundaries of my body, the cells in my brain that understand where I begin and where I end, which made that definition were no longer functioning, so I felt that I was as big as the universe. And you know, it was a state of being, it was this incredible experience. At the same time, I was still alive, I, my body had been stabilized. I had been given another opportunity to live life, and so it was a conscious choice for me, so I can't say that it was disappointing but I can tell you that when my times comes again, there will be no fear, and there will be probably an elation and celebration, so I just feel totally grateful for the time that I have on this planet, and when it's done, you know I had a wild ride-what a way to go.

Strainchamps: You lost so much from the stroke, you gained a lot too though. When the left hemisphere shut down. You suddenly were able to access all of the ways of perceiving that belonged to the right hemisphere. Can you describe what that was like?

Taylor: Yeah, it was really wonderful, you know, um, we have these two very different hemispheres in our heads and they process information in totally different ways. The right hemisphere thinks in pictures and it is all about the present moment. It is analyzing and perceiving the information from our sensory systems in this moment and creating a big enormous collage of this present moment and the existence of the present moment is beautiful. There is no judgment there, it just, it is. And when I lost the judgment and the critical analysis ability of my left hemisphere, in that language structure and the ability to think linearly and sequentially and methodically and to make sense of the past and to project ideas into the future. I lost the past. I lost the future. I was given the present moment and for me it was a total experience of peacefulness and euphoria, and for me so much of my motivation to recover and to reconnect with the external world was to help people recognize they have this experience of deep inner peace right there in the right hemisphere if you allow the left hemisphere verbiage system to shut down enough to allow you to come back to the present moment.

Strainchamps: You know the experience you describe, I think a great many of us would give a lot to experience it, but it's kind of depressing to think that one of the few paths is through brain damage. And the other paths, you know Buddhist mediation or yoga or some of the more traditional paths are very time consuming. Have you figured out through your own experiences, I don't know, any faster ways to shut down the left hemisphere?

Taylor: Yeah, I think that it's very important that we recognize that both hemispheres are always functioning. And I kind of, I don't know who it was, someone famous, who said "The Blue Sky is Always There", and to me the blue sky is the consciousness of the right hemisphere. And then the clouds come in, which is the consciousness of the left hemisphere and the verbiage and it blocks our ability to see the blue sky, but the blue sky is always still there. And to me that's what going on with our consciousness. We always have that blue sky, that right hemisphere experience of euphoria is at the essence of what we are. So I encourage people to pay attention to the two very distinctively different characters inside of your body. You always have the option, moment, by moment, of saying in this moment, I'm going to sit back, I'm going to look at the world around me. I'm going to escape all the things that I'm thinking about. And I am just going to pay attention to how the air feels, the temperature of the air, my breath, pay attention to feeling it come in and go out. Look at the colors in the field around me, stop thinking and analyzing everything that is going on in your left hemisphere; all the jargon. And when you allow yourself to recognize when you are already in that right hemisphere, and having that right hemisphere experience, then you can consciously choose to have that experience at any moment.

Strainchamps: You made it sounds so easy but, I don't think it's that easy.

Taylor: You have to be persistent. And what I think that I bring to this story that hasn't been brought before, is through the eyes of a scientist who specializes in the brain, we do have two very separate hemispheres and I think it’s a matter of recognizing that we are biologically designed to have this experience of feeling at one with all that is. And to say, oh, all I am doing is quieting a certain group of cells inside my brain and you can train yourself to do that, just like you can train yourself to do anything.

Fleming: Jill Bolte Taylor talking with Anne Strainchamps about her Book "My Stroke of Insight". Taylor is a Neuro-Anatomist at the Indiana University Medical School.

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