I remember sitting in the public library parking lot listening to an interview with Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. My youngest daughter and I were ready to head in for the children’s program and I resolved to look for the book afterwards. Four years later I remembered to find it and I read (listened to) it.
Like most of the other books I’ve read about stories and journeys, Taylor’s is no different. She’s a brain scientist struck by a stroke, the dichotomy almost too real to believe. Thankfully it is, because the depths she enters and the story she tells mind boggling.
Taylor describes the morning of her stroke like a toker’s high, feeling at one with the world and more liquid than solid.
I now blended in with the flow and space around me.
She feels at one with the universe, recognizing herself as the “piece of stardust” that she is. In all this she’s right and she keeps the description fierce and coherent enough that I felt like a hippy college professor was giving me the description and not someone as invested as her.
In addition to her description, she offers a startling observation that while she recognized she was having a stroke, she didn’t know whether she should call for help, or even how. The trance of peace was tempting, a siren call only she could hear. Odysseus was able to strap himself to the ship, Taylor’s anchor was in reality and she was slowly drifting away. In the book’s introduction, she addressed that she had gotten letters from people thanking her for writing the book because it gave them some closure about why their loved ones didn’t call for help when they were having a stroke. The serenity during the stroke made her consider staying in that place, no matter what the costs.
I was strangely elated when I understood that this unexpected pilgrimage into the intricate functions of my brain, actually had a physiological basis and explanation. I kept thinking, wow how many scientist have the to study their own brain function and mental deterioration from the inside out?
Once Taylor decided to get help, she didn’t know how. Numbers weren’t numbers, but symbols. She was able to call her office by matching squiggly lines (the phone number) from a business card and then dialing. As she slowly dialed, she kept mentally repeating who she was and what was happening. “I’m Jill Bolte Taylor and I’m having a stroke, I’m Jill Bolte Taylor and I’m having a stroke.” She mentally heard herself say those words but no one else did. Even though she was a brain scientist who knew exactly what was happening she was still unable to articulate her thoughts. Thankfully the caller knew what was happening and and they soon arrived to take her to the hospital.
Her story continues through her operation and recovery, where at one point she wonders,
I don’t know gross anatomy anymore, can they take away my Ph.D.?
Eventually Taylor decides to leave the northeast and return to Indiana where her family and friends are. There, she slowly recovers her mental functions but only the ones she chooses. That’s right, she only rebuilds the ones she wants.
These mental circuits or loops are patterns that we keep in our brain to run things. Taylor then shared a bit of science I never knew. She said that when we have a reaction to something, anger, joy, or whatever, there is a ninety second window where we have a physiological response. Chemicals buzz through our body like bees in a hive. After the ninety seconds pass, any remnants of a reaction were what we chose to keep around. Knowing how to do this was hard and Taylor laid out three tools she used for flipping off a circuit she didn’t want to run.
1. Remember something fascinating.
2. Ask what brings you joy.
3. Think of something that I look forward to doing.
This was the most profound lesson for me, recognizing that my brain has some autopilot commands that I can rewrite. While listening I was reminded of this quote by Neuroscientist Emo Phillips:
I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.
In Taylor’s journey of recovery, she said that walking and sleep were both important components - two trends in my reading lately and I wonder why.
Taylor reads the audiobook that I listened to and most of the nuggets I gathered were from listening at double speed. Early chapters on brain function and architecture I skipped and I let my own mind wander while listening to parts about hers.
I would be negligent to not include the ways to identify if someone is having a stroke, where you need to act FAST. Check their Face for symmetry and see if they can raise their Arms. Is their Speech slurred and Time is of the essence if it is.