Tune in to "Super Soul Sunday", January 15 from 8-11 a.m. ET/PT and an encore at noon ET/PT on OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network to see Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor talk to Oprah about the unexpected gift of her stroke.
I grew up to study the brain because I have a brother who has been diagnosed with the brain disorder schizophrenia. I wanted to understand why my brother experienced hallucinations and delusions and why I did not. What was different about the neurocircuitry in my brother's brain? My research specialty, in the Lab for Structural Neuroscience at the Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry, was the postmortem investigation of the brain as it related to the severe mental illnesses. At the same time, I served on the national board of directors of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
But as irony would have it, I woke up one morning to discover that I had a brain disorder. At the age of 37, a blood vessel exploded in the left half of my brain, and over the course of four hours I watched my brain completely deteriorate in its ability to process all information. On the afternoon of the stroke, I could not walk, talk, read, write or recall any of my life. I became an infant in a woman's body. I didn't even know what a mother was, much less who my mother was.
On the morning of the stroke, I lost my left-brain skills, including the ability to speak and understand when others spoke to me. Although I could hear people making sounds, I could no longer place meaning on those sounds, and when I tried to speak, even say something as simple as "This is Jill, I need help," gobblygook came out of my mouth. By the early afternoon, the language centers in the left half of my brain were swimming in a pool of blood, and I experienced no language whatsoever. My mind suddenly existed in a state of total silence and in the absence of language I shifted away from normal left-brain thinking where I focused on words, definition and the details of my past. I lost the ability to define the boundaries of where I began and where I ended, and I lost all ability to define myself in relation to the world outside of myself.
Although I lost my left-brain skill set, I remained completely conscious. Without language or definition of boundaries, details of my past, or an understanding of time, I shifted into a pure perception of the present moment experience. My perception of everything around me slowed way down and I felt a remarkable sense of deep inner peace. In the absence of the ability to distinguish edges and boundaries, my minds eye broke my visual field down into billion of pixels and the atoms and molecules in those pixels radiated as energy. Even though I could not pick a person out from a background, I could perceive their energy, and I learned quickly that some people attracted me and others repelled me, depending on what they were thinking and feeling.
It took eight years for me to completely recover the normal function of my mind and body. I learned that every ability I have I can experience because I have cells in my brain that perform that function. I can move my fingers because I have cells in my motor cortex that perform that function. I can track a moving target through space because I have cells that perform that function and I can become angry or sad or even happy because I have cells that perform those functions. If I lose any of those cells due to trauma or pathology, then I can no longer have that ability or perform that function.
In the absence of my left-brain skill set my ability to think about the past was gone, and when my mind shifted into the experience of the present moment I experienced a tremendous sense of euphoria. When people meditate or pray they use their thoughts to shift their minds away from the normal patterns of brain chatter, freeing them from the left-brain circuitry and opening up the right brain experience. When we bring our minds to the present moment, we bring our curiosity and enthusiasm to a situation rather than our past emotional baggage, perceived limitations and critical judgment. This can be a very freeing and attractive way to spend time.
However, that is not to say I am an advocate for right-brain living. Without the left-brain skill set we become completely non-functional in the real world. I am a true advocate for balanced brain living where we practice and honor the skill sets of both of our cerebral hemispheres.
In many ways this stroke has been a blessing to my life. In 2008 I gave a TED talk that went viral on the Internet, and I was chosen as one of Time Magazines's 100 Most Influential People in the World. To my good fortune I was interviewed by Oprah for her Soul Series, and my book My Stroke of Insight became a New York Times bestseller and is being translated in 30 languages. People all over the world now have a manual about what it felt like for me to have a stroke and what they can do to help their loved one recover from brain trauma.
In the last year I created Jill Bolte Taylor BRAINS, Inc., a not-for-profit dedicated to brain awareness, appreciation, exploration, education, injury prevention, neurological recovery and the value of movement on our mental and physical health. Much like the Cows on Parade, we are holding a Brain Extravaganza! in Bloomington, Indiana, where we will be placing 22 enormous fiberglass brains on display to promote education and awareness of this beautiful organ. For more information please visit drjilltaylor.com and experience my interviews with Oprah on Super Soul Sunday.
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