It’s not often that we review nonfiction unrelated to the arts here at The Jade Sphinx, but we have just finished a fascinating book by brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor, called My Stroke of Insight. In it, she chronicles the onset, affects and long term recovery of a devastating stroke she suffered at age 37, and it is an alternately harrowing and fascinating tale indeed.
Bolte was a respected brain researcher, a board member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and a member of the Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry. Her younger brother suffered from schizophrenia, and Bolte was interested not just in mental illness, but the physiological reasons for it – in short, she was deeply invested in the mechanical and chemical workings of our brains.
So when she suffered an asteriovenous malformation (AVM), a rare form of hemorrhagic stroke, it was from the privileged space of being an expert on the inside looking out. However, that privilege was not something she could communicate to her peers – shortly after her stroke, Bolte could not speak, read, and process her impressions. Her brain was a prisoner within her own body, and it would take eight long years before she would recover completely.
My Stroke of Insight is harrowing in its depiction of the onset of stroke and its affects on cognitive function and simple quality of life. Perhaps nothing could be more terrifying than lying helpless and conscious while various loved ones and professionals calmly decided her fate.
It is fascinating because the damage done to Taylor’s mind was mostly on the left hemisphere, the portion of the brain that reasons, deduces, makes connections and is rational. This freed her right hemisphere without reservations; it unleashed the portion of her mind that was intuitive, creative, free and receptive to the world without filters of reason. In the absence of the normal functioning of her left orientation, the perception of her physical boundaries were no longer limited to her left-filtered impressions. She felt like a genie escaping from its bottle and swam on a sea of euphoria.
As Bolte puts it: My entire self-concept shifted as I no longer perceived myself as a single, a solid, an entity with boundaries that separated me from the entities around me. I understood that at the most elementary level, I am a fluid. Of course I am a fluid! Everything around us, about us, among us, within us, and between us is made up of atoms and molecules vibrating in space. Although the ego center of our language center prefers defining our self as individual and solid, most of us are aware that we are made up of trillions of cells, gallons of water, and ultimately everything about us exists in a constant and dynamic state of activity. My left hemisphere had been trained to perceive myself as a solid, separate from others. Now, released from that restrictive circuitry, my right hemisphere relished in its attachment to the eternal flow. I was no longer isolated and alone. My soul was as big as the universe and frolicked with glee in a boundless sea.
Now, before we dismiss this as so much New Age hoo-haw brought on by brain damage, let’s consider what happened here. If the left hemisphere of the brain is a filter through which our reason, capacity to measure and ability to make connections is the part of our brain that makes sense of reality, then the right hemisphere is the part of our brains that receives reality without the blinders of cognition. In short, perhaps what Bolte saw was indeed the world as it really is, without the blinders of our own reason getting in the way.
Another way of thinking about it is that Bolte was given the insight that the human psyche and consciousness are a very subtle type of force that interacts with the brain, but are not necessarily produced by the brain. That we are, indeed, entities that would exist without our very human bodies. An interesting thought, that.