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Jill Bolte Taylor: Her Stroke Sent Her on a Dazzling Head Trip

A serious scientist had a powerful experience. And she found herself in a universe she had never played in. And, boy, is she happy she found it.
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In the winter of 2008, when all was politics, my non-political friends kept sending me the video of Jill Bolte Taylor's 18-minute talk at the TED Conference. That audience swooned; two million online viewers and instant fame followed. Dr. Taylor was named to Time Magazine's list of the 100 most influential people in the world. She had the obligatory audience with Oprah. And now here's My Stroke of Insight, the bestselling book.

What's the fuss about?

For those who have not already shed tears of joy at Jill Bolte Taylor's story, she had a stroke. And there was no one better to have it. For when she woke up on December 10, 1996 to discover "I had a brain disorder", she was a 37-year-old neuroanatomist at Harvard's brain research center. And so she quickly figured out what was happening to her.

She had two reactions.

One came from her left hemisphere: "I'm a busy woman. I don't have time for a stroke."

The other came, immediately after, from her right hemisphere: "This is so cool!"

And with that, Jill Bolte Taylor embarked on a wondrous trip: "My perception of physical boundaries was no longer limited to where my skin met air... I felt like a genie liberated from its bottle."

That's not just metaphor. One of her brothers is a schizophrenic who believes he's personally tight with Jesus -- and he's a big reason Jill Bolte Taylor gravitated to brain research. She was, by her account, very much the scientist in her work. Right-brain insights didn't interest her -- until, that is, they were all she had, all she was.

Her account of her stroke and her recovery is so wonderfully and meticulously detailed that it's hard not to be suspicious of these chapters. She had a stroke and she remembered just about every thought and sensation. How cool is that -- or how unlikely?

Since James Frey, commentators are on the lookout for comma errors in memoirs, but Jill Bolte Taylor gets a total pass in hers. That is partly because she is a scientist who writes like a scientist, and that invariably impresses a civilian audience. But even more, millions and millions of people buy the argument of My Stroke of Insight because it says something that we desperately want to hear: Heaven is just one thought away. One decision, really.

Here, on one side of the brain, you can access "the life force power of the universe." On the other, "the single individual". These, she says, are "the we inside of me." And she presents you with a challenge: "Which would you choose?"

You know what she chose: "I believe the more time we spend running our deep inner peace circuitry, then the more peace we will project into the world, and ultimately the more peace we will have on the planet."

"I believe in magic," Arthur Lee sings on Love's magnificent Forever Changes. "Why? Because it is so... quick." So does Jill Bolte Taylor. This is not to minimize the commitment and work her rehabilitation required --- that took years. But she confidently believes that inner peace is a choice. You choose it, you have it. Oh, there may be backsliding, there may be a bump here and there, but if I understand her correctly, we all have the capacity to experience bliss just by an act of will. In the words of the old Apple slogan: "Think different."

How did a serious scientist reach such a simplistic conclusion? She had a powerful experience. And she found herself in a universe she had never played in. And, boy, is she happy she found it: "Nowadays, I spend a whole lot of time thinking about thinking just because I find my brain so fascinating."

If you have ever taken a high-quality psychedelic drug, you know exactly what she's talking about. But drug use is not required. This experience has been extensively chronicled in a myriad of spiritual texts and in books like Timothy Leary's High Priest, which charts, in minute-by-minute detail, "the rebirth experience, the flip-out trip from which you come back as a man." (In a hurry? Just watch and listen to Eight Miles High by The Byrds, and see if you don't feel your mind slip off the planet.)

Fun stuff. But most of us also have to pay the rent and educate the kids -- we spend "a whole lot of time" in a reality that can be pretty nasty. And if we spend any time feeling peaceful, it's often because we have a spiritual discipline or have spent considerable time slogging through our garbage in the office of a mental health professional.

My friend Jeffrey Rubin has spent three decades blending traditional psychotherapy and Eastern meditation. Along the way, he's read and studied pretty much everything out there. Experience with clients has confirmed for him the power of old emotions and old conditioning --- and of the changes you can make in how you think. But not in an instant. "There are no shortcuts to bliss," he reminds me.

Jill Bolte Taylor's experience gave her a shortcut. But her book is actually most valuable for what it says about slowing down, taking a breath, making time for kindness. Her publisher downplays it, but My Stroke of Insight is best as a guide to caregivers -- in brief and blunt language, she lists exactly what a stroke victim needs if she's to have a full recovery. And because Taylor compares re-educating stroke victims to teaching children, those chapters are also valuable to parents of pre-schoolers.

Eye-contact. Patience. Empathy. We can never be reminded too often to be human. After all the excitement fades, consider Jill Bolte Taylor's book a 175-page Post-it note.