A Stroke of Insight

Watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor is a neuroscientist whose life was transformed -- first by illness, and then by illumination -- as she beautifully conveys with wisdom and pathos in this TEDTalk, which has been viewed over ten million times. Dr. Taylor's neuroanatomy laboratory is at McLean Hospital, a psychiatric hospital that is part of Harvard Medical School, where for over a decade I was the hospital's medical director. I am proud to say I knew her then but left about the time her life was so profoundly changed.

Dr. Bolte knew brain disease in the form of schizophrenia because her brother had the illness. She attributes her career direction, in part, to having a brother with this condition where a young person, typically in his or her teens or early twenties, begins to show a variety of thinking and behavioral problems culminating in a psychosis, or loss of reality, that heralds the frank onset of the disease (which likely was developing in the brain from childhood but did not fully express itself until later). But, as she tells us, her brain was pirated away by a different disorder, namely a sudden stroke, the bleeding of a blood vessel in her brain, one morning some eight years before she gave this TEDTalk.

Her functional loss after the stroke was severe, as she could not speak, move the right side of her body, nor comprehend others. She required neurosurgery to drain the blood from the bleed. She required many years of rehabilitation, though she does not tell that story, before her full functioning was restored -- and indeed it is, as you can tell from her riveting lecture.

What is so remarkable about her stroke, her life and her talk was the extraordinary experience she then felt and continues to -- what some have called 'oceanic' or a spiritual awakening. This is the product, as she explains, of her right brain, the half of the brain that sees "pictures," senses the movement of our body, receives and processes smells and tastes, and delivers the awesome capacity to appreciate oneself in relation to others. Our brain's left hemisphere is the side that takes facts, data, and organizes them; it is the half that reasons, not the half that helps generate feelings. In a normal brain, the two sides, connected by millions of fibers, work harmoniously and give us the benefit of sensing and analyzing, of feeling and reasoning; we have in our brain the world's greatest interactive computer (even if it loses a chess game to a machine from time to time)!

For Dr. Taylor, the unleashed, unbalanced dominance of her right hemisphere induced in her a wondrous experience. She felt, still does, the beauty of our connectivity with others, the energy that bonds us to each other, and the compassion that fosters love and unity among people. She experienced, still does, the prospect of a deep humanity and the peace that can come of a world dominated by the right hemisphere, rather than the left. What this represents is not an idea to Dr. Taylor, for ideas are for the left hemisphere. This is a feeling, a faith, which is available to all of us when our right hemisphere, by accident or intent, grows in its activities and power.

Dr. Taylor has mined from a devastating cerebral hemorrhage a transformative awakening that she wants to tell us about. Her recovery and her discovery are now our gifts to share.

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