In 1996 brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor was on the fast track of her profession. She was moving steadily toward her goal of understanding the chemical foundation of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, from which her brother suffered. Two years earlier, at 35, the Harvard-trained neuroanatomist had become the youngest board member ever at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Researching and teaching at Harvard Medical School by day, “Dr. Jill” filled her weekends and evenings educating audiences about what she calls the “tissue issue”—the value of brain donation for research.
But on December 10, 1996, the energetic brain scientist had a stroke: a golf-ball-sized hemorrhage and blood clot shut down the left hemisphere of her brain. “How cool,” she thought. “But I’m a very busy woman; I don’t have time for this.” Over a period of four hours, using her still-functioning right hemisphere, she observed as her ability to walk, to use or understand language, or to recall the details of her life gradually disappeared, and she went into “a state of cognitive inability.”
Her recovery took eight years, but it was anything but time lost. In her subsequent book, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, she remarks: “What a wonderful gift this stroke has been in permitting me to pick and choose who and how I want to be in the world. Before the stroke, I believed I was a product of this brain and that I had minimal say about how I felt or what I thought. Since the hemorrhage, my eyes have been opened to how much choice I actually have about what goes on between my ears.”
Vision contributor Dan Cloer spoke to Dr. Jill about how we can all benefit from her insight—without experiencing a stroke.
DC You write that most of us are left-brain dominant. What does that mean?
JBT From a neural, anatomical, medical perspective, we define dominance based on which half of the brain has the language centers capable of creating and comprehending language. Something like 99 percent of people who are right-handed are left-hemisphere dominant—meaning they have language in their left hemisphere—and over 60 percent of people who are left-handed are left-hemisphere dominant; they also have language in their left hemisphere. So that’s the anatomical use of the phrase.
When it comes to function, however, I define dominance as which hemisphere is the driving force of our consciousness. The right-hemisphere consciousness is more of a global, unified, everything-is-connected experience of the present moment. This is different than the left, which is more linear, more methodical in its thinking, and which puts everything on a hierarchy: good and bad, right and wrong. The two hemispheres function very differently in the way they process information, and generally one or the other at any moment in time is dominant.
DC Is there actually a difference in the wiring, the neuroanatomy of the two hemispheres?
JBT It’s the same cells, but the cells are differently organized. They are sensitive to different types of information. For example, the left hemisphere may be able to tune in to the high-frequency tones that are related to voices; the right is more sensitive and cued in to lower-frequency sounds, which are more like body gurgles. Each hemisphere specializes in very specific types of information processing.
DC The popular notion is that the left brain is logical and the right is emotional. Is there that separation of function?
JBT The left hemisphere is extremely emotional; it can be extremely angry, extremely sad. So it has its own emotional system. What is going on in the right hemisphere that is different is more of a kinesthetic connection and nurturing perspective, with compassion, such that everything is connected. I would not call it more emotional; that is wrong, a misnomer for what is actually going on.
We essentially have two very different brains in our head. Wouldn’t it be nice if we really had an understanding of how to capitalize on the whole organism and recognize when we are skewed more toward one type of thinking as opposed to another? And we’re not just skewed toward another type of thinking; it’s an arrogance that says that my type of thinking is more important or better than your type of thinking because I do it this way and you don’t. We have both hemispheres, and they are equal. One is not better than the other. It just makes us a little bit different in the processing of information.
“We essentially have two very different brains in our head. Wouldn’t it be nice if we really had an understanding of how to capitalize on the whole organism. . . .”
DC When you were having your stroke, you looked in the mirror and did not know who you were anymore. How do I know who I am when I look in a mirror?
JBT In order for me to know who I am it is necessary to have language. My “name” is language. When I lost my language centers and the ongoing brain chatter that connected me from my internal world to the external and vice versa, I also lost those cells that told me who I was. There is a little file that says, “Jill Bolte Taylor: This is who I am, where I live, and blah, blah, blah.”
Did you ever wonder how it is that you can look out into the world right at this moment and have the experience of whatever is there in front of you? How is it that you can then turn your back to that experience and look at a whole new experience and still remember what’s behind you? You must have cells that are performing that function, cells capable of having linear communication with each other so that this moment is attached to the last moment. And then we have the ability to take all of that information and project what the next moment might be like.
I could do nothing like that; I had no moment but the present. When I looked out and turned my back, that view was gone. It was not information that I had to work with anymore. All I had was the information in front of me.
Without a brain telling me “I am Jill, blah, blah, blah,” I did not have that identity anymore. As I lost lots of function of my left hemisphere, I lost memories and had no more recollection of my life, no ability to be her anymore. So that brought up the question, Am I still her just because I look like her? I am in this body and she was in this body, but I don’t know her anymore. Does that obligate me to still be her? This was a really profound experience, and I am sure that anyone would find it such. If we have new interests and new ideas, a new life essentially, who are we? And how vulnerable is our identity to our neuroanatomy? For me, I found that I am my neurocircuitry. A small group of cells define me—this collection of files. But if that gets wiped clean, am I still her or am I . . . Who am I?
DC When you lost access to those files, what did your right hemisphere do? It wasn’t a “voice”?
JBT No, it was a kinesthetic knowingness. I lost the cells that defined the boundaries of my body, where I began and where I ended. In the absence of that information I had the perception that I was at one with all that is: I am blended with all of the atoms and molecules beyond me. I had no information per se going on in my mind, because the brain chatter was gone, so there was this absolute silence. People talk about the stillness. For me it wasn’t really still because atoms and molecules—everything is in motion. But it is quiet, perfectly quiet. Everything is just blending and moving.
We have a group of cells inside our brain that tell us we are solid. Okay, I’m a solid. But for eight years I did not exist as a solid; I existed as a fluid entity in a fluid environment. When I lost that perception of “solid” and that defined boundary of my body, I became a perception of “fluid,” at one with all that is. That is a very different way of perceiving yourself in relationship to your external world. This was a marvelous experience—to be that enormous in the absence of the distraction of language that has to label everything in my world. Its absence put me in a position to simply experience the energy dynamic of all the particles around me, and it was a beautiful experience.
“To me the ultimate goal is a balance between two healthy hemispheres. We have the ability to choose which gifts we want to bring forward and which personality we want to have dominate.”
For me the beauty has been the awareness that everyone has their own experience inside their own head. There are hundreds and thousands of people who would be defined or described as extremely right-hemisphere-dominant people—not for where their language is located but for their characteristics and personality. To me the ultimate goal is a balance between two healthy hemispheres. We have the ability to choose which gifts we want to bring forward and which personality we want to have dominate. It makes sense, when you stop and think about the kinds of information these two hemispheres process and how they do it differently, that there would be very distinctive personalities that would go with those.
DC Was the situation of your stroke such that the blood clot damaged cells so they were shut down for a while and then able to come back? When the clot was removed, were the cells able to reconnect?
JBT The hemorrhage happened in a very specific area of my brain, and those cells died in the immediate focus point of the bleeding. In my brain that area was mathematics. People would ask, “Jill, what is one plus one?” and I would hunt and hunt and hunt for the correct response, but eventually I would say, “What’s a one?” People would try to explain to me what a one was, and I would wonder, “If that’s a one, how can there be another one if there’s only one?” I was totally confused for four years.
The brain is just like any other organ, any other part of the body, when it gets wounded. As soon as there is tissue damage and trauma, blood rushes to the site, bringing the immune system to clean up the mess and to figure out what’s going on. So my brain had this clot as well as this natural swelling; this immobilized the left-hemisphere cells and probably the right hemisphere too, because the whole brain is traumatized.
Once the blood clot was removed two and a half weeks after the hemorrhage, there was a lightness to my spirit. There was a pressure release that felt like, “Okay, I can live with this no matter what I get back; I feel bright. I feel fine again.”
I was very fortunate in that over months, as the swelling went down, different circuits became more functional again. But everything was like a slate wiped clean. I had to learn language—vocabulary—again. I had to learn to read again; it was at the level of infancy at the beginning. There are disadvantages and advantages to that. The advantage was that as the left side began to come back online, I realized I could ask, “Is that circuitry I want to run?” And for some circuitry I said, “No, I’m just not interested in that running.”
DC You use the picture of the mind being like a garden, and that the owner has the responsibility to pay attention to what is happening.
JBT Right, absolutely. I need to pay very close attention to what is growing in that garden of my mind. I need to explore where I want it to go, because you get to shape your garden. It is more than just pruning. You shape your mind over time and get to evolve it into something you want it to be.
We really are not running on automatic. I only seem to be on automatic because I am such an amazingly fast-functioning organic entity. But I am not automatic; I get to make choices along the way. The question is, am I willing to pay attention enough to what circuitry is running and consider what it is attracting to my life? Is that what I want to attract to my life?
“We really are not running on automatic. I only seem to be on automatic because I am such an amazingly fast-functioning organic entity. But I am not automatic; I get to make choices along the way.”
It lets everyone stop, if they are open to the idea, to say “Okay, what about it? What would I like to be?” I have been telling people for a long time, even before the stroke, that the brain you walk into a situation with is not the same brain you walk out with. The brain is constantly changing, because it is learning new information and making associations with information you already have in there. It is not identical to the brain you had before. If just learning can do that, imagine what we can do if we consciously set our minds to do it with some type of strategy.
DC We often tell ourselves, “I wish I could get that out of my head.” And we can. That is the power, the insight you are talking about.
JBT Yes, that is the power. We have the ability to focus our minds on things that we want to focus on, and if our mind is unconsciously focused on something that we don’t want to think about, all we have to do is choose to think about something else. We have the ability and the power to choose what we want to think about.
So for me it all goes back to paying attention to what it feels like inside. The next time you feel yourself feeling angry, for instance, stop thinking about the subject that is making you angry and start paying attention to what it actually feels like. I encourage people to just focus on their own physiology: as soon as you feel that anger or that sadness coming in, just look at your watch. Let it happen and pay attention, observe yourself; it’s very cool. Your body is a really cool thing. It is unfortunate that so many people are so out of touch with what things actually feel like at a physiological level. The idea is to observe the thought and the body’s response rather than engaging the thought and rerunning the same loops that keep you mad or sad. As soon as you take your mind off the object that is making you mad, you are not running that trigger anymore.
DC You wrote that “finding the balance between observing our circuitry and engaging with our circuitry is essential for our healing.” You mention looking at your watch. Could you describe your 90-second-wait strategy?
JBT Paying attention to what my body is telling me means asking “What is my gut sense?” to an experience. Is it something that I like, or does it make me uncomfortable? Am I okay with that? How long do I want to stay like that? From a physiological perspective it only takes 90 seconds for that set of triggers—stimulus, awareness, emotional connection, and anxiety rush inside of you—to run its course and be flushed away. Unless you rerun that loop by rethinking the thoughts that restimulate the emotion that restimulates the physiological response, the uncomfortable feelings will go away.
DC Do you think we train our children out of having this ability? When we are young we seem to be able to “hear” that inner sense of self and connectedness with the world that comes from the right brain. It’s children who seem to have a greater sensitivity to their surroundings, but adults tell them, “No, it’s nothing. Just your imagination.” But now it seems we are concluding that listening to our senses has more value than we first believed and can have an effect on how we relate to each other.
JBT I agree completely. Our academic system is designed to reward extreme left-hemisphere gifts and behavior. This is measurable. Look at a group of five-year-olds and ask them, “Who’s your favorite singer?” They’ll all say, “I am, I am, I am!” Then ask a group of high schoolers and they’ll point to anyone but themselves. There is an openness, joyfulness, innocence, playfulness, creativity and imagination—all these wonderful attributes of the right hemisphere—but where’s that going to get you and how will it put a paycheck in your hand? How will that pay for dinner?
Then if you look at our level of aggression in society, it tells us what is going on in the left hemisphere. It gets stressed out; it is on a timetable, so it’s always urgent and always late and behind, and this results in a snappish attitude and behavior. To the left hemisphere, everything is either right or wrong; so if I do something and it is not right I’m going to have to deal with the repercussions and criticism. It is all about hierarchy, so I know where I sit on that ladder—what’s above me and what’s below me—and I have to behave accordingly to fit into my little box. Okay, that’s one way of being. But how happy are these people?
At no time have I said that we should all grow up to just be pure right-hemisphere. The point is balance: which are you and when? We have the ability to choose which one and when. I am a true advocate for developing both skills. Now we are out of balance with left-hemisphere dominance, so how do we learn to respect the right-hemisphere gifts and not feel like we are just absolutely wasting our time? I think part of that is to recognize the physical cost to your body and mind. If you can’t do this for yourself, do it for the health of your body and for your family in order to try to understand the benefits of, well, taking a bike ride.
“At no time have I said that we should all grow up to just be pure right-hemisphere. The point is balance: which are you and when? We have the ability to choose which one and when.”
DC There are other physiological consequences for the body—stresses and illnesses that can be avoided by controlling the mind. Healing the mind helps the body.
JBT We are just one big thing. The more we use the conscious mind to pay attention to the messages and the communications of the body, the more we begin to understand the language of the body; it’s all about understanding the language. I get thousands of e-mails, almost all positive. But that one negative one; well, I start reading and then I feel it—it’s a gut reaction—and I stop reading. My left hemisphere wants to hit “reply” and engage in confrontation to prove that I am right. But I have the capacity to decide to override that desire. I have the power to make that decision in that moment. Do I engage, or observe and then pass it to the side? To live aggressively with the world is not healthy.
DC Concerning the Harvard Brain Bank: When people are done with them, why do you want their brains?
JBT Some people have never heard of brain-banking. You have a beautiful brain and there is so much to learn about what is going on at a cellular level. We need to know what is going on in the brains of individuals who would be diagnosed as normal controls as compared with brains of individuals with various psychiatric diagnoses. The only way we are going to understand is by looking at the tissue and at the cells and determining which cells are communicating with which cells, and with which chemicals, and in what quantities of those chemicals. Only then can we figure out what is normal; and then, what can we do for someone who is experiencing psychosis to help him or her come back toward normal?
The more we understand our own brain, the better chance we have of figuring out how to live a happy life. And ultimately, the mental health of our community is established by the mental health of the brains making up that community. I hope we choose to spend more time tending the gardens of our minds.