Book Note: My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor

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“My right brain celebrates its freedom in the universe and is not bogged down by my past or fearful of what the future may or may not bring. It honors my life and the health of all my cells. And it doesn’t just care about my body; it cares about the fitness of your body, our mental health as a society, and our relationship with Mother Earth.”

This is NOT the kind of paragraph that endears a book to me.  This book contains many such paragraphs, extolling the many virtues of the right brain and providing advice on how to rein in that useful, but sneaky, story-teller of a left brain.

“My right mind understands that I am the life force power of the fifty trillion molecular geniuses crafting my form!  (And it bursts into song about that on a regular basis!)”

Again, just not my style.  And yet, I enjoyed this book almost thoroughly (the last forty pages dragged a bit for me) and I recommend it – pretty much – to others interested in the brain.

On December 9, 1996, the author was a neuro-anatomist, working as a post-doc in the lab of Dr. Francine Benes at McLean Hospital, part of Harvard Medical School.  On December 10, she was a stroke victim, fighting for her life and her mind(s).  Born with an arteriovenous malformation in her left cerebral hemisphere, this bad connection came apart early on the morning of December 10, spewing blood through the left side of her brain.  Dr. Taylor’s story of her increasing mental deterioration – and of her consciousness of that deterioration – is compelling reading.

Even more important, I think, is her depiction of the struggles of her recovery from the stroke, especially the important lessons she learned in the early stages of that recovery.  Her needs for time, for sleep, for a halt to sensory bombardment, and for respect rang very true.

It took Jill Taylor eight years to feel she had fully “recovered,” though importantly, and, to her, beneficially changed by her “stroke of insight”.  Her recovery was driven in part by her drive to tell her story, a neuroscientist’s own view of the trying experiences of both a major stroke and of recovery from it.

It was also driven by her desire to convey the conclusions she drew from her experience about the differences between how left and right cerebral hemispheres work.  This last discussion was less convincing to me – or, perhaps I should say, to my left cerebral hemisphere.  She seems to me to have extrapolated broadly from how she has made sense of her experience, beyond what I think the current science of hemispheric differences would justify.  It seems to me that perhaps a person inclined to mysticism found mystic meanings in her experience, meanings that others might not see. And the way she encourages people to tell their left and right brains what to do makes me wonder just who she thinks is doing the telling. But I have no reason to doubt her when she says that it works for her.

I suspect many, perhaps most, people will be more open to her interpretation of her experience than I am.  But even I found the story of her stroke and recovery fascinating.  I give this book 1.847 thumbs up (all of the right thumb and most of the left).

Hank Greely


One response to “Book Note: My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor

  1. One addition (or amendment)

    One thing has been bothering me since I wrote this post. At some point, Taylor talks about having worked very hard with a Gestalt therapist to reconstruct her memories of the day of her stroke. This does make me worry a bit about how accurate her memories of the stroke, as recounted in the most compelling section of the book, actually are.

    I’ve been even more worried in the last couple of days for two reasons. First, I just finished reading a book on classic psychiatric hysteria and late 20th century movements the author thought were probably newer examples of hysteria: UFO abductees, Gulf war syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome, recovered memory, multiple personality disorder, and ritual satanic abuse. (Elaine Showalter, Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media, Columbia Univ. Press, 1998). The sections on recovered memory and on ritual satanic abuse were particularly unnerving in terms of the possibility of therapists planting (intentionally or not) the seeds of memories.

    Also, I recently got an e mail from a stroke victim, who blamed her burst aneurysm on increased blood pressure from taking an Adderall the morning of the stroke, although, she said, she didn’t remember anything from the day of the stroke, not even whether she had, in fact, taken an Adderall that morning.

    So I am now even more uncertain about how much weight to put on Dr. Taylor’s memories of the day of her stroke. That doesn’t mean I disbelieve them, but I currently have a mental asterisk next to them.

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