Book #12, read December 2018
My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientists’s Personal Journey (Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D.)
I came across this book when a philosopher I know was discussing their own head injury on Facebook, and another chimed in to recommend it. I read the description of the book and quickly purchased it more or less because I hoped it’d promise me that my dad would die a peaceful death.
Not your average stroke patient
The author (Jill Bolte Taylor) suffered a catastrophic stroke at age 37, completely out of the blue, due to a previously undetected, congenital brain defect. By that time, she had already earned a PhD in neuroanatomy. So, unlike most stroke patients, Dr. Taylor had unique insight into what had happened to her even as it was still unfolding.
As the stroke got rolling and her left brain hemisphere filled with blood, Dr. Taylor experienced what sounds like a hallucinogenic “trip,” though not completely what you’d call a “bad trip.” She felt off in various ways – lost coordination, lost sense of time, eventually lost her sense of her own body and its borders. She developed difficulty speaking and recalling information, until basically the learned contents of her brain felt inaccessible to her (like locked up filing cabinets, she says). She managed to reach out for help via telephone just before it was too late, and received prompt medical attention. But of course a ton of damage had already been done.
Left-side stroke: not as terrifying as you would think?
Dr. Taylor required open-skull surgery to remove the blood clot caused by the stroke, and had to basically start over at learning how to read and write. But even while her brain descended deep into its left-side injury and lingered there, she didn’t feel panicked, terrified, etc. Instead, Dr. Taylor felt pleasantly detached from the decline of her own body. She enjoyed a physiologically-induced warm bath of positive emotions like peacefulness, oneness with others and the universe, and non-judgmental acceptance of what was happening.
These right-brain-driven emotions were so pleasant to Dr. Taylor that they tempted her to linger in stroke world, by not participating in her own rehabilitation. After such a profound experience, the scene of her hospital rooms and even her home seemed jarring and foreign. Having escaped death by stroke, maybe she could just dwell in the right-brain warmth forever.
The road to recovery
Dr. Taylor’s intimate knowledge of how brains work make her explanations of the injury and recovery processes especially fascinating and valuable. It took about 8 years, but she did choose to re-enter the regular world and through intense and sustained efforts was able to make a complete recovery from her catastrophic stroke. Still, the experience was a clearly transformative one, and Dr. Taylor came out the other side with a different personality and different values.
Although it does not seem to be the intended main point of the book, the biggest (and most useful, IMO) takeaway is that the human brain possesses enormous capacity to heal and compensate for damage. (Ironically, this is part of why patients with brain tumors present relatively late for treatment – because their brains find other ways to get by for quite some time). Of course, it’s not nothing to survive a brain injury; even ordinary aging can do a number on you. But it’s probably better to err on the side of assuming more remaining capacity rather than less (c.f. Into the Gray Zone which I enjoyed but did not review here yet!)
Dr. Taylor’s “Stroke of Insight”
The main lesson Dr. Taylor does explicitly offer, the “stroke of insight,” is just this: “Peace is only a thought away, and all we have to do to access it is silence the voice of our dominating left mind.” You may feel as though you’re trapped in a stressful, chaotic world — but that’s just your left brain speaking. If you can quiet it down, your peaceful right brain has been there all along, ready to comfort and elevate you.
In her pre-stroke life, Dr. Taylor had been career-focused, extremely independent, and (by her own account) somewhat arrogant. Although she (amazingly) returned to various kinds of work beginning just months after her stroke, Dr. Taylor became less narrowly achievement oriented and more humble afterwards. This was not any kind of automatic reaction to having had a stroke, nor was it a consequence of altered or diminished post-stroke capacities. Instead, Dr. Taylor made the conscious choice to shift her priorities and retrain her emotional patterns in light of what she’d learned from her walk on the right-brained side of things.
Digesting the lesson
I’m sure it’s not this simple, but Dr. Taylor’s stroke originated on and mostly affected the left side of her brain, and my dad has a left-side glioblastoma tumor, so I (wishfully?) decided the conditions were similar enough to make some comparisons. In this capacity, the book succeeded. I’m willing to believe that I’ve seen glimmers of this right-brain dominance in my father’s behavior.
I’ve had a hard time finding academic literature on right vs. left-sided glioblastomas and how the patients differ qualitatively (as opposed to sheer survival rate statistics). Still, it stands to reason that tumor sidedness could explain at least some of the heterogeneity of end-of-life experiences for these tumor patients (and their bystanding families).
The exception proves the rule
At the same time, I (cynically?) feel as though Dr. Taylor’s advice is almost self-refuting. It took a catastrophic, barely-survivable stroke for her to learn to tap into the peace buried deep within her brain. Dr. Taylor likes her new, happier, calmer self so much better than her old, cranky self – yet 37 years of ordinary life experiences didn’t (maybe couldn’t) even begin to get her there.
There’s a lot of reason to believe that small steps towards increased mindfulness can benefit people emotionally and physically. But there’s not a lot of reason to believe that this kind of total, right-brained transformation is literally within the reach of everyone, anytime.
Peace may be just a thought away just for those people who have devoted large amounts of time and energy to making it so. If you haven’t done this, it will just make you feel worse to find that you’re unable to flip the switch from left to right brain at will.
You do have more control over your reactions to things than your level of control over most events themselves. But that doesn’t mean that emotional responses are completely voluntary. Shaping and taming our emotions is the task of a lifetime. Unless we’re lucky (?!) enough to have a stroke.