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My Stroke of Insight: a brain scientists personal journey

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mystrokeofinsight_brain

The Experience

“My entire self-concept shifted as I no longer perceived myself as a single, a solid, an entity with boundaries that separated me from entities around me… Everything in my visual world blended together… I could not perceive three-dimensionally.  Nothing stood out as closer or farther away.  If there was a person standing in the doorway, I could not distinguish their presence until they moved… In addition, color did not register in my brain as color.  I simply could not distinguish it.  But in this shifted perception, it was impossible for me to perceive either physical or emotional loss…”

So what is this?  A religious experience?  The effect of a hallucinogen?  No.  It is the experience of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard-trained neuroanatomist, as she experienced a stroke and lived to write about it.

I pleaded, Remember, please remember everything you are experiencing!  Let this be my stroke of insight into the disintegration of my own cognitive mind.

And this is what you will find in Dr. Taylors book:  My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey

The Event

The book “My Stroke of Insight” is a fascinating book.  It’s the personal story of Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard-trained Brain neuroanatomist, as she experienced, recovered from, and analyzed her experience of having a stroke.

The fascinating aspect of this is that in Jill’s stroke the left hemisphere of her brain was impaired while the right side of the brain was not affected.  In the asymmetry of the brain, the left hemisphere is the “logical” part of our mind and the right hemisphere is the “emotional” part of our mind.  The hemisphere’s of the brain are connected by the Corpus callosum.  It is the integration of these two hemispheres that is, if I could use the term, “mind”.  The “mind” is what provides our perception of self and the world.

Brain hemisphere asymmetry

To be more specific on asymmetry, the right hemisphere is a collage of our sensory systems – sound, taste, smell, and sensation along with emotions and physiological responses.  To the right hemisphere no time exists except the present moment.  The right hemisphere “thinks” in terms of pictures.

The left hemisphere processes information.  It sequences events together.  It provides a sense of past, present, and future.  It knows that you put on socks before shoes.  The left hemisphere is where language exists.  The left hemisphere speaks.  When you think cognitively, you think in terms of language.  Ask a multi-lingual person which language they think in – they will understand the question. Jill calls the inner ongoing conversation with which we think “brain chatter”.

Systematic disintegration of cognitive ability

What happened to Jill is that during her stroke she was able to witness, as a trained brain neuroanatomist, the systematic loss, piece by piece, circuit by circuit, of the left hemisphere of her brain – her cognitive ability.  As the stroke progressed she was not able to speak, distinguish objects one from another, see colors, order time, perceive temperature, or know the position of the limbs of her body.

Imagine, if you will, what it would feel to have each of your natural facilities systematically peeled away from your consciousness.  First, imagine you lose your ability to make sense of sound coming in through your ears.  You are not deaf, you simply hear all sounds as chaos and noise.  Second, remove your ability to see defined forms of any objects in your space.  You are not blind, you simply cannot see three-dimensionally, or identify color.  You have no ability to track an object in motion or distinguish clear boundaries between objects.

A unique opportunity

The real value of this book, and the real value for Dr. Taylor – if there could be an upside of having a stroke – is that a person trained in neuroanatomy and brain science was able to witness, first hand, her own journey into the systematic disintegration of her cognitive ability and live to tell the story.

I pleaded, Remember, please remember everything you are experiencing!  Let this be my stroke of insight into the disintegration of my own cognitive mind.

This is a journey that none of us would want to take.

The journey

The book is divided into 20 short chapters.  These chapters cover Jills pre stroke life, basics on brain anatomy, the morning of the stroke, her (self)rescue, surgery, recovery, and her “Stroke of Insight”.  The book is 192 pages in length, published about 8 months ago at the time of this writing, and has racked up 193 reviews at amazon.com.  At least one reviewer wrote that this book was so fascinating that they read it on one sitting.  I can confirm this.

A practical use of this book is for people who are helping people recover from stokes or want to better understand what can happen in brain injury resulting from stroke.  Dr. Taylor provides two appendices “Recommendations for Recovery” – Ten Assessment Questions and Forty Things I Needed Most.  The first is a “self-check” – “Do I know that socks go on before shoes”.  The second is a list of what people recovering from stroke need most that care-givers may not understand.

Tending the Garden

I read this book in one sitting.  What I was looking for in this book I did not find.  What I found was nearly the opposite of what I expected or it was ambiguous and contradictory.  The missed expectations is when I got to the later chapters – Finding Your Deep Inner Peace and Tending the Garden.

Reading the book in sequence I had a hint of what was to come but I dismissed it as literary metaphor.  Dr. Taylor uses language of being fluid, being one with the universe, and part of an eternal flow of energy.  In short, what one would call “mystical language”.

Knowing that I am part of the cosmic flow makes me feel innately safe and experience my life as heaven on earth.  How can I feel vulnerable when I can not be separated from the greater whole? … My rigt mind realizes that the essence of my being has eternal life.

From Dr. Taylor, with a scientific perspective and an understanding of neuroanatomy I expected “Reductionism”.  Reductionism is a school of thought that says.. “it’s nothing but” as in “The experience of [insert any religious-type experice] is nothing but brain chemistry and structure.

Dr. Taylor understands that Reality is constructed.  This is from the earlier chapters…

And I must say, there was both freedom and challenge for me in recognizing that our perception of the external world, and our relationship to it, is a product of our neurological circuitry.  For all those years of my life, I really had been a figment of my own imagination.

This is what I find contradictory with the “semi-religious/mystical” language that I took as a literary metaphor.  Is Dr. Taylor saying that these things are “real” (statements of fact) or are they constructions – figments of her imagination (statements of interpretation)?

If I read carefully “For all those years of my life…” (emphasis mine).  Were those years the early years before the stroke?  And now those years are the past.  Is part of the “stroke of insight” the insight that the (mystical) experiences that she describes are not “constructions and figments of imagination – brain chemistry” but in fact access to some new hard Reality heretofore not available?  If this is what the author intends to communicate then there has been an unjustified “leap of faith” of an otherwise scientific approach.

Who are we really?

This book should scare people.  It brings to the fore how delicate our grasp of Reality can be.  Sanity, and a grasp of reality is a delicate orchestration of chemistry.  In Jill’s case, a hemorrhage caused blood to flow over the brain cells of her left hemisphere.  The result of this was her inability to perceive Reality as we commonly know it.

If Reality is mediated by a billion brain cells and brain chemistry then who is to say what Reality really is other than our perception of it?  If Reality is mediated by a billion brain cells and brain chemistry then who is to say who we are and how we arrive at knowledge of self?  How can a billion brain cells aggregated as three pounds of meat become conscious of itself?

Conclusion

mystrokeofinsight_humanbrainThis book has quite a story.  How many people do you know who have an intimate knowledge brain anatomy and function who can experience, first hand, the disintegration of their own cognitive ability, piece by piece, and live to tell the story?

On this basis, I would recommend this book to everyone. 

As far at the latter chapters, my opinion is that it compromises the work to talk about these mystical experiences as “real” and at the same time “recognizing that our perception of the external world, and our relationship to it, is a product of our neurological circuitry.”  To talk in this manner is a collision of pre-Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinking.

I need to give this book a second look to unravel this.  I recommend you at least give it a first look.

Resources

The book: My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey
Watch a video of Dr. Taylor: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight.html

If you always wanted to go to Harvard University – it’s easy.
Donate your brain to the Harvard Brain Bank – 1-800-BrainBank
This a request from Dr. Taylor on the last page of her book.

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Written by frrl

January 30, 2009 at 9:23 am

Posted in Commentary and Opinion

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2 Responses

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  1. don’t talk about MYSTICAL experiences IF you have never been THERE –
    You think we are just sentient MEAT with legs ? There is much more
    to this human experience then MOST people will ever GRASP – most of
    us glimpse life thru the very thin slits between the long wooden planks of the
    FENCE of our considerable conditioning . It usually a very narrow view of
    an amazing PANORAMA !

    JAY LEE

    January 27, 2015 at 3:56 am

  2. Thanks for sharing this. I don’t know if you saw Dr. Taylor on Oprah on 10.21.08 – great show! Also, she was on Oprah’s soul series in May. I also heard her on Nightline and NPR’s Terry Gross. Each excellent interviews. I hope there is a movie someday too. To quote TED and her AMAZING video, Dr. Taylor’s work is definitely an Idea Worth Spreading!

    ledinsider

    February 2, 2009 at 9:18 pm


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