Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D. will share her life-changing experience at the upcoming Celebrate Your Life Chicago
“It was 7:00 a.m. on December 10, 1996. I sluggishly awoke to a sharp pain piercing my brain directly behind my left eye. Squinting into the early morning light, I clicked off the impending alarm with my right hand and instinctively pressed the palm of my left hand firmly against the side of my face. Rarely ill, I thought how queer it was for me to awaken to such a striking pain. As my left eye pulsed with a slow and deliberate rhythm, I felt bewildered and irritated.”
From her widely acclaimed book My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey (Viking Penguin), Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D., introduces us to the life-changing event that led to eight years of therapy to completely recover her ability to walk, talk, read and write and recall her life. And since her recovery from a life-threatening stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain, this Harvard-trained and published neuroanatomist has recommitted her life to helping survivors of stroke and inspiring all of us to to be more conscious about our brains and make life choices that support this incredible organ. She also is the national spokesperson for the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center and educates the public about the shortage of brain tissue donated for research of severe mental illness.
Her story became a viral sensation in 2008 when her presentation at the TED Conference (Technology, Entertainment, Design, focused on “ideas worth spreading,”) went online, and she became a premiere guest on Oprah’s Soul Series webcast. She was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2008, and her book is currently being translated into a major feature film, with Ron Howard directing, and Howard and his Imagine partner Brian Grazer producing.
Dr. Taylor will be one of four keynote lecturers at the Celebrate Your Life conference in Chicago from June 8-11, an event designed to help you transform your life from the inside out.
She spoke by phone from her office in Bloomington, Indiana, with The Edge about her upcoming talk in Chicago and the incredible insight she received as a result of her experience with stroke.
As a neuroanatomist who focuses on the brain, do you have a specific focus of study?
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor: Before the stroke, my research was related to schizophrenia and severe mental illnesses and what are the differences between the brains of individuals who experience symptoms and those of us who do not.
And how about since the stroke?
JBT: Now I’m very interested in neurological rehabilitation of individuals from brain trauma.
Has your stroke shifted your perspective on the study of the brain itself?
JBT: I think that I care much more about the differences between the right and the left hemispheres than I cared about before.
Most people know there is a left side and a right side. Can you share with our readers the differences between what is going on in the two sides?
JBT: Well, essentially the right brain is looking at the big picture of the world and the left brain is looking at the details of the world.
What do you know now about the brain that you didn’t before your stroke.
JBT: Well, I know that I have a full conscious right hemisphere, independent of my left hemisphere. When the details of my life were taken away — including my identity as I am, an individual, and the boundaries of where I began and where I ended — I had a very different perception of myself and my relationship to the world around me.
How did your experience add to our overall knowledge about how the brain operates?
JBT: It certainly gave insight into how our two hemispheres work together in order to create our perception of reality.
I read in an interview with you that you are grateful that you had the stroke. Why?
JBT: I didn’t say I was grateful. What I said was that it has been a blessing to my life. It has given me an insight into how my brain functions — and I learned as much about how my brain functions through the eyes of a neuroanatomist having a stroke as I did through all of my years of academia.
Do you feel like you are a different person now than you used to be?
JBT: I think that the person I used to be went offline when I experienced the stroke and that circuitry shut down, and in the absence of that dominant personality, there was another me inside that was kinder, gentle, more compassionate, more open, much more right-brained. Then, over time as the circuitry of my left brain recovered, I had to renegotiate which of those two characters was going to predominate in my life at any moment. I do believe we each have the ability to pick and choose, moment-by-moment, who and how we want to be in the world, and that we have that choice based on our brain circuitry.
When you were in rehabilitation you had, did you have access to your past memories of who you were?
JBT: I did not.
But, over time you were able to distinguish between the two, your former self and the self that you were creating?
JBT: Well, the old self wanted to come back online and I wasn’t necessarily jumping up and down about relinquishing the power to her.
In your interview with Charlie Rose, you said a moment of clarity for you was that we are wired for peace, that within us is the capacity to experience this. How can we tap into that experience?
JBT: I think the most important thing is to recognize that we have these two very different hemispheres. The left brain is focused on the details of our lives, and it’s our site for language. The language can be going on and going on and going on and it says a lot of things and keeps our brains really busy. But we do have the capacity to quiet that language center and to not listen to it all the time — and in the absence of all of that language that our brains are saying to us, there is this incredible sense of peacefulness within us.
And then Charlie followed up on that question by suggesting different ways that people can do that, shut down the constant talk from our left brain, and you mentioned meditation, walking in nature and prayer as ways to help quiet that language part of our brain.
JBT: Exactly. When we pray, we are repeating a prayer over and over again, which interrupts the incessant flow of new ideas in the language center. When we meditate, we may meditate reciting a mantra, which we repeat over and over again, again replacing the incessant new material coming in. It is an opportunity to push a reset button or to say to the language center, “I’m going to preoccupy you for a little while so that I don’t have to focus on you,” and when we do that it becomes more quiet. As it becomes more quiet, the left hemisphere becomes more quiet. The right hemisphere opens up with incredible possibility, and I believe that that is the site of this experience of peace.
How do we create balance between our two hemispheres?
JBT: I think it’s a matter of looking at our lives and paying attention to what we are doing, how we live, what is our skill set of our right hemisphere, what is the skill set of our left hemisphere and how much time we are spending living in one or the other or, really, in an open flow between the two.
I am familiar with some groups that use sound and other technology to help achieve that, such as the Monroe Institute.
JBT: I do not endorse any products. However, I believe that it’s a choice and the choice is a free choice. Sure, you can use all kinds of instrumentation and manipulate yourself in all kinds of ways, but the bottom line is you’re the only one who is going to be able to control what’s going on inside of your head — and you have to choose to do it. You have to decide to do it 1,000 times a day in the beginning because we are running habitual circuitry.
The bottom line is that what you are running inside of your brain is circuitry, and you do have some say in whether you’re going to put your mind on it and focus energy into it and strengthen it, or if you’re going to put your mind somewhere else and put energy into that other circuitry and strengthen it.
What you’re describing is the act of living consciously.
JBT: Exactly. Mindfulness. Paying attention to what’s going on inside of your brain and knowing that you have some say in that. Take a little responsibility for what’s going on in there.
Do you get a sense that humans overall are becoming more mindful as a species?
JBT: Well, I think there certainly is a movement that is ongoing now that is stronger than it’s been in the past.
You write that you care about our personal relationships with our brains, but I would guess most people don’t think much at all about their brains. Why should we care, and how does one develop a relationship with his or her brain?
JBT: I think it’s a matter of looking at what’s going on inside of your head and looking at what’s going on in your life and making a determination as to the quality of your life and how you feel about that.
When you start to pay attention to what’s actually going on inside of your brain, you realize that every ability that you have is because there are cells in your brain that perform that function. I can watch a moving target move through space because I have cells that perform that function. If I don’t have those cells, then I can’t do that. I can wiggle my index finger because I have cells in my brain that perform that function. If they are not well, then I cannot perform that function. If I lose the cells that permit me to speak, then I cannot speak out loud.
When you stop and think about each of your abilities and start making assessments of what is going on with yourself emotionally — that those, too, are just cells performing a function — and when you create a relationship with your brain, it helps you figure out what you want more of in your life, what you want less of, and it puts you more in the power chair of control.
So, once you identify something that you want more of, how do you create that in your life?
JBT: It’s just like learning anything. If you want to learn how to pole vault, you are going to do it over and over again and you’re going to exercise your body and you’re going to grow your muscles in very strategic ways and you’re going to work with your coordination and your balance and you’re going to develop the skill set. The same is true for your emotional situation. Say, for example, you’ve experienced anger and you would like less anger. Then, it’s a matter of how you lessen the strength of that specific circuitry that results in anger.
If you were able to speak to everybody in the world about the brain and they would hear you and understand you, what would you want to tell people?
JBT: I’m all about appreciation, awareness and education about this beautiful organ. The better we understand how it works, then the better we can get ours to work well in our lives.
What are the things we do that are most harmful to our brains without knowing it?
JBT: The biggest thing we do is that we deprive ourselves of sleep. We function in a society that is sleep deprived. And we all know how we feel and how much more poorly we function when we don’t pay attention to getting enough sleep. So it’s number one.
What does the brain do when we sleep?
JBT: It rests. It stops processing new information and organizes and files the information that we’ve brought in, allowing us to make sense out of it. And then we wake up fresh, ready to bring in new data.
Aside from getting more sleep, are there things that we can do in our everyday lives to strengthen our circuitry to improve that sense of peace within ourselves?
JBT: Oh, absolutely! It’s about paying attention to what are we doing with our bodies. First of all, our bodies are designed to move, so how much movement are we actually giving our bodies? What are we eating? What are we drinking? If we’re pumping a bunch of sugar or caffeine into our bodies, then we are essentially telling the neurons in our brain that we want them to accelerate and function more quickly.
Where is your mind? How much time are you spending in the big picture of things versus the details of things. I always encourage people to take the first five minutes in the morning and actually think about your body and say, “Thank you!” There are a group of cells inside of the brain stem that are responsible for you waking up in the morning, so take those moments to say, “Wow! I’m awake! I’m awake! I’m alive! Wow! I get another day!” Because there are people that did not have that opportunity today.
I believe in functioning from a state of gratitude and to really celebrate what I am as a living being. That is such a choice. And at night before I go to sleep, I say thank you to myself for another great day, and I encourage them for the next eight hours to bring me health. There are living beings in the brain. Who knows what they’re going to be doing for the next eight hours if I don’t tell them what I want.
So I have a real relationship with my body, with the cells that make me up. They make up the consciousness of all that I am. I have this incredible brain that I can consciously choose to focus, to give it directives on what I want, so why wouldn’t I do that?
Paying attention to water is incredibly important. Sleep is incredibly important. Nutrition and movement are all incredibly important. So too is your overall attitude. I can wake up in the morning and feel angry, or I can wake up in the morning and think thoughts that are going to fill me with gratitude. I take responsibility and I choose gratitude.
How do you personally respond when your left brain begins to overwhelm you with day-to-day concerns or fears?
JBT: I usually respond by taking off my glasses and sitting back and looking out the window and allowing my eyes to lose their focus — and I go back into the present moment experience. I have a great terrific awareness of when I am feeling stress, when I am pushing things so hard or juggling so many different things. I’m really clear on my own circuitry and I take responsibility for it. As soon as I feel that level of stress and I know I am going into a zone that isn’t particularly healthy for me, it doesn’t feel good to my body, and I choose to shut it down as quickly as possible.
What did your experience teach you about the way modern medicine helps people recover from strokes?
JBT: Ooooohhhhh, I think that we treat people as though they will not recover. What I’ve learned is that when you treat someone as though they can recover, then they are more inclined to recover more than if you treat them as though they will not recover.
In past interviews you have spoken about the word “victim” versus “survivor.” That does seem pretty powerful to me, also.
JBT: Very powerful. If I treat you like you are a victim, I instill in you a belief from me very different than if I celebrate you as a survivor.
Why did you write your book?
JBT: I wrote my book because so many people called me on the phone and said, “Why did you recover? What did you do?” And my mother said, “Honey, you’ve got to write a book because, you know, you’re on the phone all the time.”
What did you learn during the process of writing your book?
JBT: I learned that it’s really hard to go back and be in the past, and that my mind is much more excited in the present.
You’re going to be speaking in June in Chicago at Celebrate Your Life. What message do you want to leave with your listeners there?
JBT: Peace is just a thought away. That’s pretty much my fundamental message, and so I just hope people understand from a brain perspective what’s going on. What is the circuitry that we’re running? How is it organized? And what say do we have in how we live our lives in a more peaceful way?
On your website I discovered something exciting about your trip to Antarctica. Tell me about what went on there and how that affected you.
JBT: It was profound. I was invited by Al Gore to join him and a team of 140 other individuals to go to Antarctica. For me, it was a realization that our relationship with the planet is a total projection of what’s going on inside of our brains. We are living in a non-sustainable way because we are living more out of our left brain value structure, which is all about me, the individual. It’s about me and mine. It’s about money. It’s about materialism. It’s about usage of resources as compared to the right hemisphere value structure, which is more about our relationship with one another, our relationship as humanity in relationship with the planet, which is much more sustainable thinking.
What I realized was that by expressing ourselves through our left brain way of being, we are skewed in relationship to the resources on the planet, which is contributing to the problems that we’re having. For me it was the awareness that when we become more in balance — living between our right hemisphere and our left hemisphere value structures — then that will naturally shift the way we live in relationship to the planet, back more towards health.
What are your dreams for the coming year or two? Do you have anything exciting planned?
JBT: Yes, a couple of things. The first thing is our event in Bloomington, but I don’t want to just see brains in Bloomington. We’re creating a model that we can then re-create in communities around the world. Cows have been on parade in over 100 cities. I want to see brains all over the world. I want people talking about brains. I want them thinking about their brain. I want them creating a relationship with their brain.
I really think the more we become aware of what is going on, then the better overall relationship we will have with our own brains and it will help shift humanity. So I am all about brains everywhere.
The second thing is that I care about neurological rehabilitation, so I’m invested in a program to create a video game that is specifically designed for the neurological rehabilitation of people with trauma. That’s very exciting for me.
And the third is the movie. The book has come out in 30 languages, so it is all over the world. I think a movie will hit even a bigger audience. It will take you on that journey into the process of losing your mind by giving you a sense of what that experience was really like. And then it asks you, “Would you want to come back and under what circumstances and what kind of person would you be if this experience had happened to you?” So, I’m very excited about all of it.