A Stroke of Insight–and a Message

stroke bookOne morning when she was 37 years old, Jill Bolte Taylor lost much of her mind. A malformed artery-vein junction in the left hemisphere of her brain burst open, flooding surrounding brain cells with blood that is toxic when not where it’s supposed to be.

Over the next few hours, as various left-hemisphere functions faded in and out and then shut down, it became quiet inside her head. No more chattering voice-of-me analyzing, judging, building anxiety, anger and fear. No more awareness, as well, of being separate. Just right-hemisphere peace and the bliss of being one with the energy of the universe.

However, Taylor was a PhD brain scientist, and she realized she was having a major stroke; bliss or no bliss, she was in serious difficulty. She managed to summon help—and then she spent the next eight years rebuilding her left-brain functions, including the “self” that had words and boundaries and could function in a world where past and future and other linear concepts matter.

She did quite a good job. In 2006, she published a book that became a bestseller, “My stroke of Insight.” In it, she offered hope and advice to stroke patients and their caregivers. However, she had a message for the rest of us, too: We can all get a taste of the bliss she experienced during her stroke by learning to “step to the right”—by choosing to cut off the negative chatter that our highly trained logical, analytical left hemispheres are so good at coming up with and accessing the deep peace that she says is the nature of the here-and-now, non-verbal right hemisphere.

I had read about Jill Taylor but hadn’t read her book until quite recently. And now I have watched her 2008 TED talk as well, which can be found at this link:

http://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight#t-64870

The talk is amazing, but the book is even more amazing because, of course, there’s a lot more to it. I would recommend it to anyone interested in how the mind works and, more especially, to anyone who prays, meditates, practices qigong or otherwise strives to quiet brain chatter and attain peace—because “stepping to the right” is pretty much what we’re all trying to do.

In “Stroke of Insight,” Taylor cites research on Tibetan meditators and Franciscan nuns who plied their practice inside a SPECT (single photo emission computed tomography) machine. As they meditated or prayed, the SPECT machine recorded a decrease in activity in their left hemisphere language centers, suggestive of a lessening of brain chatter. As well, there was a decrease in activity in the left hemisphere’s orientation association area, which helps us identify our physical boundaries, where the energy that is “me” abuts the universe of energy that is “not me.” 

Taylor may be over-simplifying matters when she says that we have two different minds corresponding to the two different hemispheres; other brain scientists say that the two hemispheres may have certain specialties and differences, but that they have many similarities as well. And, of course, the two hemispheres are connected through the corpus callosum.

However, I really appreciate many aspects of Taylor’s message; they resonate with learnings from my qigong training, and from my Buddhist meditation practice before that. 

For one, there is the notion that I am not identical with my thoughts, that it is possible for “me,” whoever that “me” is, to get a bit of distance from my thoughts and even observe them with some dispassion. Taylor’s experience demonstrates this in spades. Even after the speech centers in her left hemisphere shut down and there were no more words in her head, no more “thoughts,” she continued to be a person who, among other things, recognized her mother and wanted to live and be whole again. 

From having witnessed her left hemisphere shut down and then working to rebuild its various functions, Taylor concluded that we all have more control over our thoughts than we think we do, and that we all need to learn to tend our “thought gardens.” 

Taylor points out that every time we run a particular neural circuit it becomes easier to run that circuit again. And indeed, isn’t that what learning is all about? Only we don’t think of it as learning when we replay over and over an incident that made us angry, or when we berate ourselves yet again for having eaten too much after dinner. 

Taylor says that when we recognize that we’re running a negative thought loop, we need to abort it as quickly as possible. We can “step to the right” by shifting our awareness to our here-and-now sensory experience. I might choose to really feel the warm, soapy water running over the dish I’m washing. Or notice the chewiness of the bagel I’m eating. Or attend to the many different sounds that make up the noise of traffic. If I need more compelling sensory experience to attend to, I cand go for a walk or get out a pad of paper and some colored pens. 

Actually, as I read Taylor’s book, I realized that I had already begun doing some of this “stepping to the right” as a result of some realizations from my qigong practice. 

What was transformative for me was Taylor’s image of tending one’s thought garden. 

I am a gardener. I get gardens. Well-tended, they are lush and alive, ever changing, ever seeking to grow—not a bad image for a mind. Better, indeed, than thinking of my mind as an inscrutable hunk of gray moosh. 

I get the notion of tending, too. It involves patience and perseverance and, above all, respect for that which is tended; it is a kindly process that does not involve bulldozers or Agent Orange. 

When my thoughts are bringing me down or stressing me out, that image of tending the garden of my mind is somehow comforting. It makes getting to a better mind space seem doable.

 

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  1. Pingback: The Plastic Brain | Qi Frontier

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