Jill Bolte Taylor: Brain Scientist, Stroke Survivor
You can find out more about Jill Bolte Taylor at her website.
Produced and edited by Nick van der Kolk. Special thanks to Ben Popik.
Image credit: Rachel HarperPLAYLIST
Title – Artist – Album
Inside of Every Human – Duet for Theremin and Lap Steel – Duet for Theremin and Lap Steel
90/94 (Interlude) – Radius – Neighborhood Suicide
BOX – William C. Harrington – Urban Electronic Music
Hostess Mourner – Duet for Theremin and Lap Steel – Duet for Theremin and Lap Steel
E – So – So
I woke up and I had a severe pounding behind my left eye…And it was the kind of pain, caustic pain that you get when you bite into ice-cream. And it was very unusual for me to experience any kind of pain, because I was physically fit…And it just gripped me, and then it released me. And then it just gripped me, and then it released me.
I got up and thought I’d start my normal routine, so I jumped onto my cardio glider. I’m jamming away on this thing, and I’m realizing that my hands look like primitive claws, grasping onto the bar. I looked at my body and I just felt alienated from my body. I felt as though I was witnessing myself having this experience, instead of being the person on the machine, having the experience.
Was that frightening at all?
* * *
Hi Nick, I’m doing well. How are you doing?
I grew up in Terre Haute, Indiana. Two older brothers. The babygirl of the family. Father was an Episcopalian minister. Mother was a full professor of mathematics and it was when I was in my Ph.D. program that my brother, who was 18 months older than I, was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Well he was actually the smart one of the three kids. He was very artistic, very poetic, very musical. He was the kind of kid who could make straight A’s and never open a book or do his homework. Living in the shadow of that gave me kind of permission to be an underachiever, because he was such a shining star.
He went to college and he came home and he was essentially a born-again Christian. Stalking behaviors, preaching on the street corner. His art had kind of a tinge of hostility and anger in it.
Is there a particular episode that stands out in your mind?
No. You know, I can recite numerous opportunities where he’s on street corners, preaching at the top of his lungs. But no, that was pre-stroke for me and this is not information that I have chosen to really go back and recover and explore.
Having grown up with someone who perceived the world very differently than I did, yes, I was fascinated about who we are as living beings because of my relationship with my brother. How is it that two people can experience the same event and walk away with completely different perceptions of what just happened? I spent six years dissecting bodies in the cadaver lab and that was thrilling for me, because it’s so absolutely beautiful. Then I also participated in the neuroanatomy lab for six years.
There is nothing more exquisite than standing elbow-to-elbow with first-year medical students, teaching them about what organs are inside of the body, and the relationship between the different organs and how the organs combine into systems. This is the artist’s palette for them for the rest of their lives.
You have to remember that I’m a brain scientist. Anything at all that’s gonna happen in my brain, my first approach is going to be “Oh, this is interesting.”
I was in my apartment in the city, and there was no noise going on that I was aware of outside of my apartment. The pain in my head was just getting stronger, so I got off the machine. Everything in my body felt really slow. My movements were very rigid and jerky. There was no fluidity. It was as though I was listening to the machinery of my muscles. I became detached from my job, and my relationships in the external world, and my stress related with any of that. I lost the perception of my body and the boundaries of my body. I felt that I was connected to all that is, and I felt an experience of euphoria, and I liked it there.
And this is all while you were in the shower?
Yeah, this is all while I’m in the shower. It was a great morning for a shower.
I got out of the shower and I was walking around my apartment, and my right arm went totally paralyzed by my side. It hits you, it whacks you like a limb just hit you. I then realized, “Oh my gosh, I’m having a stroke.” And once I realized I was having a stroke, my mind went straight to “I have to get help.”
* * *
Our right human hemisphere is all about this present moment. It’s all about right here, right now. Our right hemisphere thinks and pictures, and it learns kinesthetically through the movement of our bodies. Information in the form of energy streams in simultaneously through all of our sensory systems, and then it explodes into this enormous collage of what this present moment looks like, what this present moment smells like and tastes like, what it feels like, and what it sounds like. We are energy beings, connected to one another through the consciousness of our right hemispheres as one human family. And right here, right now, we are brothers and sisters on this planet, here to make the world a better place, and in this moment we are perfect, we are whole, and we are beautiful.
Our left hemisphere is a very different place. Our left hemisphere thinks linearly and methodically. Our left hemisphere is all about the past, and it’s all about the future. Our left hemisphere is designed to take that enormous collage of the present moment and start picking out details, details and more details about those details. It then categorizes and organizes all that information, associates it with everything in the past we’ve ever learned, and projects into the future all of our possibilities.
And our left hemisphere thinks in language. It’s that ongoing brain chatter that connects me and my internal world to my external world. It’s that little voice that says to me “Hey, you gotta remember to pick up bananas on your way home, I need ‘em in the morning.” But perhaps the most important, it’s that little voice that says to me “I am. I AM.” And as soon as my left hemisphere says to me “I am,” I become separate, I become a single, solid individual, separate from the energy flow around me, and separate from you. This was the portion of my brain that I lost on the morning of my stroke.
When I lost that language, I became detached from my job and the stress related to that, or my relationships in the external world and my stress related with any of that. When all that was gone, I was left with the experience of the present moment.
Was there any fear at this point?
No, there wasn’t any fear, there wasn’t any reason for fear. I never calculated that there was reason for fear. The only emotion I felt was the bliss, the euphoria; the absence of experience was one of bliss, so this was not a negative experience for me. To the neuroanatomist inside of me, this was a fascinating experience, and it’s like “Wow, this is so cool!” How many scientists do have the opportunity to study their own brain from the inside out?
Once I realized I was having a stroke, my mind went straight to “I have to get help.” A lot of people ask me why I didn’t just call 911. Well, the portion of my left hemisphere that understood what 911 was, was swimming in a pool of blood. My landlady was home on maternity leave right below me, I easily could have gone downstairs and mumbled something at her and she would have taken me to the hospital, but she didn’t exist for me anymore. So I had a plan, and that plan was I was going to call work.
I went into my office space and I could not remember my phone number at work, but I remembered that I had a business card there. But when I looked at the business card, I could only identify pixels, I could not read. I would drift out into the right hemisphere consciousness, which was a state of bliss, a state of euphoria. But then I would have a wave of clarity and I would come back to focus, and it was like “Okay, this is not the card. This is not the card. This is not the card.”
How many cards did you end up going through?
About an inch worth in a three-inch stack.
And how long did that take you to get through?
It took me about 45 minutes to get down through that inch.[This is not the card. This is not the card. This is not the card.]
* * *
When I was teaching and performing research at Harvard Medical School, in the lab we would specifically look at the brains of different individuals, some who would be diagnosed with schizophrenia, schizoaffective and bipolar disorder. There was a shortage of brains and because there was a shortage of tissue available, I started traveling around, talking to organizations, family organizations of people with mental illness.[So, this is the human brain…]
There was this moment during my presentation that the audience would realize “Oh my gosh, she wants my brain!” They would look down, it was like we’re all in the first grade and “Don’t call on me, don’t call on me.”
I thought that I had to do something, and I started traveling with my guitar. When that tension in the room would rise when people would realize “Oh my gosh, she wants my brain!”, I would just pull out my guitar and I would sing to them the Brain Bank Jingle. They would giggle and all the tension would dissipate, and then they would decide “Okay, she’s cool. This is alright,” and they would let me talk to them then about the ins and outs of donating your brain to science through the Harvard Brain Bank.
* * *
When I finally found the card, I put the phone pad next to the card. I did not understand numbers at this point, I did not understand a telephone at this point. I had to identify the shape of the squiggles on the phone pad to the shape of the squiggles on the business card. My colleague was at his desk and he picked up the phone. To me, he sounded just like a golden retriever, and I thought “Oh my gosh, I cannot understand language.” Then I said to him, “This is Jill, I need help.” At least that’s what I tried to say, but what came out of my voice was wuh-wuh-wuh-WUH. I thought, “Oh my gosh, I sound like a golden retriever.”
He recognized that I was in trouble and that I needed help, and he communicated to me with soothing tones; I have no idea what he said to me, but my right hemisphere picked up on the soothing tones and I knew that he would get me help.
I had this fear right at the core of my being – that was probably my only fear – that my insurance company would not cover my medical cost in the event that I went to the wrong place.
That is absolutely insane.
Isn’t that insane, that in that condition that was my fear?
I went down my steps very slowly and unbolted my door. Then I crawled back up the steps and sat on my couch and I waited for what seemed to be perhaps the last few moments of my life.
What went through your mind at that point?
“Hold on, hold on, hold on… Just hold on…”
And you still felt no fear at that point?
What is there to fear? When you’re in that position, what is there to fear? I felt an experience of euphoria, and if this was the end of my life and I dissolved into that tranquil peacefulness, then that was not something that I needed to fear.
What kept you motivated to hold on then?
I hadn’t gone through the entire morning with the intention of my life ending, but it wasn’t something that I needed to fear. I didn’t feel that death was something that I needed to fear. At no time did I feel fear of that. Fear wasn’t the appropriate response. If anything, I felt gratitude.
What kept you holding on though? Was it just a sense of…
You know, there is a self-preservation instinct that still remained for me; that circuit hadn’t gone offline.
Is it fair to say that you were still enjoying the experience, enjoying that feeling of bliss?
Oh yeah, I was in a space of tranquility.
Did you have past memories that you were still able to access at that point?
No, I was nowhere other than right here, right now.
So you weren’t thinking about your family, or anything like that?
No, the circuitry that understood my family or recognized any of that – that was all gone by then.
I just felt everything shift, energy lift and just release. Spirit surrendered. I let go.
I was very surprised when I woke up later and I actually was still alive. I was alive. I was still in this body, I was still capable of opening my eyes, and yet my body felt weight, pain. I felt like a ton of lead laying in the bed. Just breathing hurt my ribs. Information coming in through my eyes was like wildfire burning my brain. The sounds in the environment were loud and chaotic, painful.
There were two bodies, two people off to the left of me. They were two of my colleagues from the Brain Bank. They were examining the CAT scan on a lightbox. I was aware of their presence, I was aware of the gravity of their affect. I could not understand the language that they spoke, but I could certainly read volumes of what their bodies were communicating, which was that this was a very grave situation.
Early on someone came up to you and asked you who the president of the United States was.
First I had to figure out that they were asking me a question, and that I needed to pay attention. Then I had to focus on their lips in order to try to match the sounds of the words to the movement of the lips, and then once I could get the sounds into my brain, then I had to figure out what those words, what those sounds meant. So I would have to ponder the word ‘president’ for a very long time. All I had was pictures, because my right hemisphere thought in pictures. Then I had to figure out what a ‘United’ was, then I had to figure out that a ‘United States’ was packaged together. What is a united state? Then I had to figure out what is the relationship between what is a president and what is a united states. This is taking hours upon hours – twelve hours – for me to contemplate this, to figure it out. Well, in the meantime of course, when a physician asks you who is the president of the United States, they would like that response within 30 seconds.
The slate had been wiped pretty clean and I had to learn new vocabulary, I had to learn to see color, I had to be told that color exists and that I can see that, I had to be taught that I could see three-dimensionally. If you, for example, were standing behind a table, I had to be taught that you did have legs behind that table, but that I could not see those. Otherwise, I would just see you and think that you were an entity with no legs.
It took eight years for me to completely recover everything.
Earlier in this conversation, you were talking about how you’ve chosen not to explore certain parts of your memory from before the stroke. How did you come to that decision?
No, I think that it’s safer to say that pain from the past is pain from the past, and I don’t feel the need to re-explore pain from the past. I’d much rather focus on the beauty of the present. So I’ve had no desire to explore a lot of my past.
She died that morning. Who I was before the stroke, that woman, that person whom I had been, her life and her memories, she died when my spirit surrendered.
When you had lost your language was there a sense that you felt trapped inside your body?
No, I never felt trapped inside of my body. If anything, I felt that I wasn’t in my body.
But it must have been a frustrating experience to try and communicate with people.
You would think that, looking in from the outside. It wasn’t like that for me; I didn’t care if I communicated with you at all. You cared, but I didn’t. I think that’s one of the perceptive errors that we make. You project your fears onto me. How many times have you asked me about fear? I didn’t have any fear. But if you were in that position, you would anticipate that you would have all this fear, so as a result you treat me with a different kind of perspective because you have fear. And I don’t want your fear; I don’t want your sympathy. I want your compassion, and that’s very different.
It’s complicated though, because I think, for myself, I find someone else acknowledging a negative emotion that I have as a form of sympathy.
But I wasn’t having negative emotions. You were. Why would you come to me and want me to validate you? I’m sorry, I don’t have the energy to do that. Now, you can go and have that conversation with somebody outside of the room, and commiserate with one another, and that’s beautiful, I’m 100% supportive of that. But you don’t bring that into my room if I don’t have the energy to deal with you.
Then it becomes a complicated situation because it’s hard to tell what the other person is feeling, because they have compromised language facilities.
Yeah, and on top of that, you’re going to project all your stuff onto that person. The only other thing I would throw in is that I think it’s really important that people don’t freak out when someone has a brain trauma. What they need from you during that beginning time is love. Just go in, trust that they’re going to be okay, trust that they’re in there and that they do know you. Because we freak out, we have all this fear of “Oh my gosh, this person doesn’t recognize me. Is it always gonna be like this?” Well frankly, if I’m experiencing a neurological trauma, it’s not about you, it’s about me. And it’s about “What do my brain cells need in order for me to recover?”
Most people think “Oh my god, let me lose an arm but don’t let me lose my mind.” Frankly, losing your mind isn’t that bad of an experience because you don’t know what you’ve lost because you’ve lost it.
I realized that I was 100% one day when I went water skiing, and I felt that I was a solid again, instead of a fluid.
Do you miss that sense of fluidity?
I really do. I miss the constant reminder that I am connected to you. You may be a thousand miles away, but you’re atoms and molecules, and I’m atoms and molecules, and the distance between us is really minute in comparison to our perception that we are so separate and we are so distant from one another. I miss the constant visual reminder, because visually everything blended together for me.
What we see so clearly defines our perception of reality, and when you see boundaries and you look at edges and everything is separate, then you see everything as separate. But when you don’t focus on the boundaries and everything blends together, then that elevates inside of your perception of what is, and what is your relationship to what is beyond you. So I do miss that, but conceptually it will never leave me. I feel so blessed that for eight years I was so clear that I was connected to everything, because I am.