In Her Right Mind-by Janet Ungless
A story about how a massive stroke left Harvard-trained brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor crippled for nearly a decade. But it also led her to enlightenment.
Even as a little girl growing up in Terre Haute, IN, Jill Bolte Taylor, PhD, was fascinated by the human mind-drawn, she says, by observing her older brother who had schizophrenia. “I became intrigued by who we are as people and what we are as people, as biological creatures, she recalls, “and how he was different in the way he perceived experiences and then chose to behave.”
By age 37, Dr. Taylor had become a brain scientist and hotshot researcher in Harvard Medical School’s department of neuroscience, and she felt pretty smart about the workings of the cerebral world-until one December morning in 1996, when she discovered a few things she didn’t know.
At 7 AM that December 10th, Dr. Taylor awoke with a piercing headache behind her left eye. Weird, she thought. I never get sick. She rolled out of her water-bed with “the ambivalence of a wounded soldier,” she says, and made her way to her cardio glider, thinking she’d sweat it out to the twangy strains of Shania Twain. her movements felt jerky, not fluid, and she found it hard to keep her balance, so she got off the machine and went to take a shower.
The usually soothing stream of warm water exploded like a massive assault of noise and motion. Her brain chatter suddenly went silent, as if someone hit a mute button. Then the boundaries of her own body began to fade, and Dr. Taylor experienced the feeling that she was “part of the energy of the universe.” It was, she says, “like being enveloped by a blanket of tranquil euphoria.”
The moment her right arm dropped paralyzed to her side, she knew: Oh my gosh, I’m having a stroke! In the next instant, another thought flashed through her neuroantomist mind: Whoa, this is so-o-o cool! And really, it was: How many brain scientists get to witness their own mental deterioration from the inside out?
The massive hemorrhage from a rare congenital malformation occurred in the left hemisphere of Dr. Taylor’s brain, the seat of language, the ego, and all cognitive information processing. Following the stroke, she couldn’t walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her own life. She also lost the ability to critically judge or feel fear, also functions of the brain’s left side. The right side of her brain (where information is absorbed through the sensory system, a collage of what this present moment looks, smells, tastes, feels, and sounds like), however, remained intact; as she writes in her best-selling book, My Stroke of Insight: ” I was not capable of deliberating about past or future-related ideas because those cells were incapacitated. All I could perceive was right now, and it was beautiful.
Within the depths of a silent mind, she says, she was able to experience ” a feeling of deep inner peace, a blissful state free of 37 years of emotional baggage. I think the Buddhists would say I entered the mode of existence they call nirvana.”
Following surgery, it took 8 grueling years of therapy for Dr. Taylor to fully recover. What kept her going was the unconditional love of her mom, whose constant questions, words, and memories, and the support of her close friends and colleagues at NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness), where she’s served on the board of directors. She was motivated, she says, because she “witnessed a few things about my brain that I would never have imagined to be true” and wanted to share them with the world, “not just those recovering from a brain trauma, but everyone with a brain!”
The insights she gained as a result of her stroke have given her a new purpose. “It’s my goal,” says Dr. Taylor, who is the poster child for stroke recovery, “to help you have more say about how you want to be in this world and take a more balanced brain approach to how you lead your life.” Here’s what she learned.
Inner peace is just a thought away.
This was the blessing I received from my experience: that nirvana is just a thought away–or, in my language (of science), deep inner peace exists in the consciousness of our right hemisphere.
And at any given moment, you can choose to hook into that part of your brain, into a peaceful state, if you are willing to stop the cognitive loops of thought, worry, (anger)–any ideas that distract you from the experience of being in the here and now. What my stroke did was shut out all those moments; it silenced the dominating, judging voice of my left mind. And when that happened, my consciousness dwelled in a flow of sweet tranquility.
You have to be willing to come to the present moment and set your ego aside–she’s not going anywhere. You can go back and pick up where you left off. Our desire for peace must be stronger than our attachment to our misery, ego, or need to be right. It’s about paying attention to your thoughts, watching what’s going on inside your mind and observing it instead of engaging with it. What this is, essentially is mindfulness.
The mind has multiple personalities.
We each experience ourselves as a single person with a single consciousness. But the two sides of the brain have different ways of looking at the world. As a result of my stroke, I gained a clear delineation of two very distinct characters cohabiting my cranium who don’t just perceive and think in different ways at a neurological level–they also demonstrate different values based on the type of information they perceive and thus have different “personalities.” By recognizing this, you can have more say about which character dominates your perspective at any given moment.
Many of us make judgments with the left hemisphere and then are not willing to “step to the right” for an update. Once we’ve made a decision, we’re attached to that decision. Your right mind is the wise woman, the observer, your intuition and higher consciousness. One of its natural functions is to bring new insight into this moment so you can update [your outdated beliefs]. For example, as a child I wouldn’t eat squash. Thanks to my right hemisphere, I was willing to give squash a second chance, and now I love it. The clearer you are about which side of your brain is processing what types of information, the more choice you have in how you think, feel, and behave.
The brain is just circuitry.
Because we’re biological, we think of ourselves as these mushy, biological things. But if we look at ourselves as circuit boards, as computers, things become simple to understand. The brain is circuitry, and with circuitry, you can choose to run it–or not. I can run a program, whether it’s my emotional programming or my intellectual programming, because I have cells that perform those functions. When you allow yourself to step outside the circuitry, you’re no longer consumed by it, and you’re no longer forced to [do what it wants you to do].
We can consciously influence the neural circuitry underlying what we think, how we feel, and how we react to life’s circumstances.
Before my stroke, I thought I was a product of my brain. I had no idea that I had some say in how I responded to the emotions surging through me. “Fear” is just circuitry–False Expectations Appearing Real. You can choose to hook into it or not. It’s a story that your left brain chatter circuitry is running–what if, what if, what if–but if you know that your brain chatter is just a tiny little group of cells, then they have no power. You can choose not to listen to them, and tune in to the present moment.