Transcript

Stroke of insight: Jill Bolte Taylor on TED.com

Posted by: Tedstaff

Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor had an opportunity few brain scientists would wish for: One morning, she realized she was having a massive stroke. As it happened — as she felt her brain functions slip away one by one, speech, movement, understanding — she studied and remembered every moment. This is a powerful story of recovery and awareness — of how our brains define us and connect us to the world and to one another. (Recorded February 2008 in Monterey, California. Duration: 18:44.)

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I grew up to study the brain because I have a brother who has been diagnosed with a brain disorder, schizophrenia. And as a sister and as a scientist, I wanted to understand, why is it that I can take my dreams, I can connect them to my reality, and I can make my dreams come true — what is it about my brother’s brain and his schizophrenia that he cannot connect his dreams to a common, shared reality, so they instead become delusions?

So I dedicated my career to research into the severe mental illnesses. And I moved from my home state of Indiana to Boston where I was working in the lab of Dr. Francine Benes, in the Harvard Department of Psychiatry. And in the lab, we were asking the question, What are the biological differences between the brains of individuals who would be diagnosed as normal control, as compared to the brains of individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia, schizoaffective, or bipolar disorder?

So we were essentially mapping the microcircuitry of the brain, which cells are communicating with which cells, with which chemicals, and then with what quantities of those chemicals. So there was a lot of meaning in my life because I was performing this kind of research during the day. But then in the evenings and on the weekends I traveled as an advocate for NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

But on the morning of December 10 1996 I woke up to discover that I had a brain disorder of my own. A blood vessel exploded in the left half of my brain. And in the course of four hours I watched my brain completely deteriorate in its ability to process all information. On the morning of the hemorrhage I could not walk, talk, read, write or recall any of my life. I essentially became an infant in a woman’s body.

If you’ve ever seen a human brain, it’s obvious that the two hemispheres are completely separate from one another. And I have brought for you a real human brain. [Thanks.] So, this is a real human brain. This is the front of the brain, the back of the brain with a spinal cord hanging down, and this is how it would be positioned inside of my head. And when you look at the brain, it’s obvious that the two cerebral cortices are completely separate from one another. For those of you who understand computers, our right hemisphere functions like a parallel processor. While our left hemisphere functions like a serial processor. The two hemispheres do communicate with one another through the corpus collosum, which is made up of some 300 million axonal fibers. But other than that, the two hemispheres are completely separate. Because they process information differently, each hemisphere thinks about different things, they care about different things, and dare I say, they have very different personalities. [Excuse me. Thank you. It's been a joy.]

Our right hemisphere is all about this present moment. It’s all about right here right now. Our right hemisphere, it thinks in pictures and it learns kinesthetically through the movement of our bodies. Information in the form of energy streams in simultaneously through all of our sensory systems. And then it explodes into this enormous collage of what this present moment looks like. What this present moment smells like and tastes like, what it feels like and what it sounds like. I am an energy being connected to the energy all around me through the consciousness of my right hemisphere. We are energy beings connected to one another through the consciousness of our right hemispheres as one human family. And right here, right now, all we are brothers and sisters on this planet, here to make the world a better place. And in this moment we are perfect. We are whole. And we are beautiful.

My left hemisphere is a very different place. Our left hemisphere thinks linearly and methodically. Our left hemisphere is all about the past, and it’s all about the future. Our left hemisphere is designed to take that enormous collage of the present moment. And start picking details and more details and more details about those details. It then categorizes and organizes all that information. Associates it with everything in the past we’ve ever learned and projects into the future all of our possibilities. And our left hemisphere thinks in language. It’s that ongoing brain chatter that connects me and my internal world to my external world. It’s that little voice that says to me, “Hey, you gotta remember to pick up bananas on your way home, and eat ‘em in the morning.” It’s that calculating intelligence that reminds me when I have to do my laundry. But perhaps most important, it’s that little voice that says to me, “I am. I am.” And as soon as my left hemisphere says to me “I am,” I become separate. I become a single solid individual separate from the energy flow around me and separate from you.

And this was the portion of my brain that I lost on the morning of my stroke.

On the morning of the stroke, I woke up to a pounding pain behind my left eye. And it was the kind of pain, caustic pain, that you get when you bite into ice cream. And it just gripped me and then it released me. Then it just gripped me and then released me. And it was very unusual for me to experience any kind of pain, so I thought OK, I’ll just start my normal routine. So I got up and I jumped onto my cardio glider, which is a full-body exercise machine. And I’m jamming away on this thing, and I’m realizing that my hands looked like primitive claws grasping onto the bar. I thought “that’s very peculiar” and I looked down at my body and I thought, “whoa, I’m a weird-looking thing.” And it was as though my consciousness had shifted away from my normal perception of reality, where I’m the person on the machine having the experience, to some esoteric space where I’m witnessing myself having this experience.

And it was all every peculiar and my headache was just getting worse, so I get off the machine, and I’m walking across my living room floor, and I realize that everything inside of my body has slowed way down. And every step is very rigid and very deliberate. There’s no fluidity to my pace, and there’s this constriction in my area of perceptions so I’m just focused on internal systems. And I’m standing in my bathroom getting ready to step into the shower and I could actually hear the dialog inside of my body. I heard a little voice saying, “OK, you muscles, you gotta contract, you muscles you relax.”

And I lost my balance and I’m propped up against the wall. And I look down at my arm and I realize that I can no longer define the boundaries of my body. I can’t define where I begin and where I end. Because the atoms and the molecules of my arm blended with the atoms and molecules of the wall. And all I could detect was this energy. Energy. And I’m asking myself, “What is wrong with me, what is going on?” And in that moment, my brain chatter, my left hemisphere brain chatter went totally silent. Just like someone took a remote control and pushed the mute button and — total silence.

And at first I was shocked to find myself inside of a silent mind. But then I was immediately captivated by the magnificence of energy around me. And because I could no longer identify the boundaries of my body, I felt enormous and expansive. I felt at one with all the energy that was, and it was beautiful there.

Then all of a sudden my left hemisphere comes back online and it says to me, “Hey! we got a problem, we got a problem, we gotta get some help.” So it’s like, OK, OK, I got a problem, but then I immediately drifted right back out into the consciousness, and I affectionately referred to this space as La La Land. But it was beautiful there. Imagine what it would be like to be totally disconnected from your brain chatter that connects you to the external world. So here I am in this space and any stress related to my, to my job, it was gone. And I felt lighter in my body. And imagine all of the relationships in the external world and the many stressors related to any of those, they were gone. I felt a sense of peacefulness. And imagine what it would feel like to lose 37
years of emotional baggage! I felt euphoria. Euphoria was beautiful — and then my left hemisphere comes online and it says “Hey! you’ve got to pay attention, we’ve got to get help,” and I’m thinking, “I got to get help, I gotta focus.” So I get out of the shower and I mechanically dress and I’m walking around my apartment, and I’m thinking, “I gotta get to work, I gotta get to work, can I drive? can I drive?”

And in that moment my right arm went totally paralyzed by my side. And I realized, “Oh my gosh! I’m having a stroke! I’m having a stroke!” And the next thing my brain says to me is, “Wow! This is so cool. This is so cool. How many brain scientists have the opportunity to study their own brain from the inside out?”

And then it crosses my mind: “But I’m a very busy woman. I don’t have time for a stroke!” So I’m like, “OK, I can’t stop the stroke from happening so I’ll do this for a week or two, and then I’ll get back to my routine, OK.”

So I gotta call help, I gotta call work. I couldn’t remember the number at work, so I remembered, in my office I had a business card with my number on it. So I go in my business room, I pull out a 3-inch stack of business cards. And I’m looking at the card on top, and even though I could see clearly in my mind’s eye what my business card looked like, I couldn’t tell if this was my card or not, because all I could see were pixels. And the pixels of the words blended with the pixels of the background and the pixels of the symbols, and I just couldn’t tell. And I would wait for what I call a wave of clarity. And in that moment, I would be able to reattach to normal reality and I could tell, that’s not the card, that’s not the card, that’s not the card. It took me 45 minutes to get one inch down inside of that stack of cards.

In the meantime, for 45 minutes the hemorrhage is getting bigger in my left hemisphere. I do not understand numbers, I do not understand the telephone, but it’s the only plan I have. So I take the phone pad and I put it right here, I’d take the business card, I’d put it right here, and I’m matching the shape of the squiggles on the card to the shape of the squiggles on the phone pad. But then I would drift back out into La La Land, and not remember when I come back if I’d already dialed those numbers.

So I had to wield my paralyzed arm like a stump, and cover the numbers as I went along and pushed them, so that as I would come back to normal reality I’d be able to tell, yes, I’ve already dialed that number. Eventually the whole number gets dialed, and I’m listening to the phone, and my colleague picks up the phone and he says to me, “Whoo woo wooo woo woo.” [laughter] And I think to myself, “Oh my gosh, he sounds like a golden retriever!” And so I say to him, clear in my mind I say to him. “This is Jill! I need help!” And what comes out of my voice is, “Whoo woo wooo woo woo.” I’m thinking, “Oh my gosh, I sound like a golden retriever.” So I couldn’t know, I didn’t know that I couldn’t speak or understand language until I tried.

So he recognizes that I need help, and he gets me help. And a little while later, I am riding in an ambulance from one hospital across Boston to Mass General Hospital. And I curl up into a little fetal ball. And just like a balloon with the last bit of air just, just right out of the balloon I felt my energy lift and I felt my spirit surrender. And in that moment I knew that I was no longer the choreographer of my life. And either the doctors rescue my body and give me a second chance at life or this was perhaps my moment of transition.

When I awoke later that afternoon I was shocked to discover that I was still alive. When I felt my spirit surrender, I said goodbye to my life, and my mind is now suspended between two very opposite planes of reality. Stimulation coming in through my sensory systems felt like pure pain. Light burned my brain like wildfire and sounds were so loud and chaotic that I could not pick a voice out from the background noise and I just wanted to escape. Because I could not identify the position of my body in space, I felt enormous and expensive, like a genie just liberated from her bottle. And my spirit soared free like a great whale gliding through the sea of silent euphoria. Harmonic. I remember thinking there’s no way I would ever be able to squeeze the enormousness of myself back inside this tiny little body.

But I realized “But I’m still alive! I’m still alive and I have found Nirvana. And if I have found Nirvana and I’m still alive, then everyone who is alive can find Nirvana.” I picture a world filled with beautiful, peaceful, compassionate, loving people who knew that they could come to this space at any time. And that they could purposely choose to step to the right of their left hemispheres and find this peace. And then I realized what a tremendous gift this experience could be, what a stroke of insight this could be to how we live our lives. And it motivated my to recover.

Two and a half weeks after the hemorrhage, the surgeons went in and they removed a blood clot the size of a golf ball that was pushing on my language centers. Here I am with my mama, who’s a true angel in my life. It took me eight years to completely recover.

So who are we? We are the life force power of the universe, with manual dexterity and two cognitive minds. And we have the power to choose, moment by moment, who and how we want to be in the world. Right here right now, I can step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere where we are — I am — the life force power of the universe, and the life force power of the 50 trillion beautiful molecular geniuses that make up my form. At one with all that is. Or I can choose to step into the consciousness of my left hemisphere. where I become a single individual, a solid, separate from the flow, separate from you. I am Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, intellectual, neuroanatomist. These are the “we” inside of me.

Which would you choose? Which do you choose? And when? I believe that the more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner peace circuitry of our right hemispheres, the more peace we will project into the world and the more peaceful our planet will be. And I thought that was an idea worth spreading.

Comments (55)

  • Garry Wertu commented on Jun 1 2009

    While our experience of reality is subjective, our ability to stand apart and process what is happening in our right and/or our left brain is clearly a real ability. It would be wise to give it some attention. Garry from http://waterproof-digital-cameras.org/.

  • Ankur Sancheti commented on May 24 2009

    Ms. Taylor,

    Indeed an insighful and eye opening video. I was wondering can Law of Attraction
    be used to cure mental illness? I am sure neuroscience must have answer for this. Certainly a good topic to research on.

    Thanks

  • Andy Smith commented on Apr 15 2009

    Very detailed story… i was wondering what actually caused her massive stroke… Normally it would be high blood pressure also a person with diabetes is at higher risk than others for stroke and other cardiovascular diseases. She didn’t mention she was having symptoms of diabetes time to go for a checkup…

  • Ashley O commented on Mar 20 2009

    An amazing story, thanks for sharing.

  • Ashley O commented on Mar 16 2009

    What I’m wondering about is the possibility of “turning off” that portion of the brain with either meditation or medication. I taught firewalking for 20 years, which involves a form of inhibiting the left side of the brain and relying on the right side as dominate. if more people we able to “tune into” the right side of the brain, how would that change the world? Ashley

  • Robert Riley commented on Mar 13 2009

    Indeed powerful story. As I read I could rebuild the whole scene Jill was going through… I’m pretty amazed at her bravery and how she handled the situation. If she never reached that phone she’d probably not with us right now. My mother is in high risk group for stroke and I just pray it doesn’t happen to her as it can come silently just as cancer.

  • Mithlesh Saini commented on Feb 27 2009

    You are some what right Alan, that specialization is called Neuroscience which involve study of every thing related to brain. Further neuroscience is divided into many sub branches like Neuroanatomy, Neurophysiology, Neuropsycholog.
    I hope this will help. Mits

  • alan buchanan commented on Feb 26 2009

    I think its a brain scientist Asha ;-)
    Alan from Planet lottery

  • Asha beb commented on Feb 24 2009

    What type of scientists study the brain areas under MRI?I mean specifically what field of science or psychology is involved in all of the studies released saying different parts of the brain light up. For example I have recently read two different articles one about mothers that are shown smiling pictures of their babies have the area of their brain light up that is associated with dopamine release. Another says when people give it makes them happy under an MRI scanner. What field of science or psychology are doing performing this research? Thanks..by Asha …!!!

  • dhirender yadav commented on Feb 24 2009

    But suddenly how one can get his blood vessel ruptured leaving him/her in a state of brain disorder? This is bit strange for me. But over all i would call it as a true inspirational journey.Thanks funniest video

  • Spy camera commented on Feb 10 2009

    I guess it was very specifically placed. We have no idea by whom. But the battery is still very new and before we call the police, I want to try and track where the receiver is located. I know it cant be more than a few hundred feet. Every time I google I get ads to buy spy cameras. Can someone help?

  • alan buchanan commented on Feb 11 2009

    What a crazy story. I learned so much just watching that 20 minute movie. It really opens your eyes, and told very well.

    Alan

  • David Norman commented on Jan 18 2009

    What a wonderful story; it makes you stronger, especially when you have a loved one who suffered stroke and going through all the pain to recover. (an editor of usa today)

  • Denise Bem David commented on Feb 11 2009

    JBTaylor is the most amazing and important talk I saw in many years. She described the neurophysiological basis of the Nirvana experience.
    I have been thinking a lot about the impact of her experience of an almost pure right-brain function, and meditation techniques, NLP techniques, and the perceptions one can achieve while practicing those. We do need a well functioning left hemisphere to be able to live. How can the balance be achieved? How can the perceptions obtained with the right brain be balanced with the practicalities of the left hemisphere function.
    Is the religious experience born of those right-hemiphere perceptions ?What is/exists beyond the balanced perceptions of a well functioning brain/mind, and that gives origin to it?
    Eckhart Tolle has some interesting insights about similar issues.
    I would be interested in knowing the comments of neuroscientists about her experice, and the mystical experience.

  • Luisa Aucoin commented on Oct 21 2008

    Wow, what an amazing story! Thank you Dr. Jill for sharing it.
    I would like to get the transcript in Spanish for my dad to read.
    Is it going to be translated in Spanish?

  • Jenny Hopper commented on Oct 10 2008

    Ms Taylor this was a great share, I have heard this several times that stoke can bring enlightenment to the mind and thoughts. My friend went through this after having a gun shot that almost killed him and cut the blood flow to this head for almost 30 mins. He felt as though a shower of love had come over him and he was never the same after.

  • Lawrence Davis commented on Jun 25 2008

    Good article about the Stroke of Insight. I heard Jill Bolte Taylor on NPR’s Fresh Aire tell her story about what she experienced during and after her stroke.

  • james debar commented on Jun 18 2008

    Ms. Taylor, Thank you for sharing. It is unfortunate that a stroke or heart attack provides direct “access” to one’s Soul. Fortunately the experience leaves an irrevocable and irreversible imprint on the Self.

    The world would be a very different place if we could all commune with our Souls. The insight would bring some harmony, within each of us which would then reflect to the other six and half billion.

    I would welcome all thoughts on such endeavor at:

    http://myselfmysoul.blogspot.com/

  • Tina Brewer commented on May 26 2008

    This is very illustrative of the goal of meditation. If you can close down your left brain briefly, you can experieince the reality of the wholeness and absence of separation of “self” and “other”. This state can be achieved by regular and long practice of various types of meditation, including “moving meditations” such as yoga or T’ai Chi. Yoga literally means “union with” and T’ai Chi loosely translates tot the “Ultimate Supreme” (all things in balance, reality as it should exist for us). I have had this briwef experieince twice only. Once through T’ai Chi practice, another in a time of just waking during a time of extreme stress (the death of my father a few days before). I woke to not knowing what/who I was. for a brief moment. The fright of such an unusual realization literally killed the joy of the experience. BUt all of this is to say: THIS STATE IS VALID, and ACHIEVABLE through dedicated practice. And it is the reality underlying what our left brain organizes into reality for us, so that we can function within our bodies. It is the experieince we all should be seeking, because then we would all finally inderstand that we are all part of the same creation, we are all units of energy that have a “separate” consciousness. When we hurt, kill or pollute, we are actually doing it to our larger “Self”, the one body of energy that encompasses all of us.

  • jj farrell commented on May 26 2008

    Fascinating,uplifting…yet frightening. What if Jill had damage to the right side of the brain? would she have no connection to the universal consciousnes? i like to think this “nirvana”, available to all, is not only connected, explainable or controlled by our brain function, but exists in spite of it… and will long after both sides of our brain ceases.