Emerging Concepts and the Experience of Stroke
By definition, a stroke occurs as the result of a blood clot in an artery or as the result of a burst blood vessel. Either way, the result leads to an interruption in blood flow to an area of the brain. When this happens, brain cells in that brain region suffer from lack of oxygen and begin to die. As brain damage begins to occur, the abilities associated with that area of the brain become lost. The abilities lost during stroke typically include speech, movement and memory. The extent of impairment experienced by a stroke patient depends on where in the brain the stroke occurred and how much of the brain was damaged.
Physically, stroke is the interruption of normal blood supply to the brain, but how is it manifested mentally? This question was of particular interest to the spring 2010 Neuroscience and Behavior Senior Seminar class as we spent much of the semester discussing the concepts of consciousness and the experience of reality. To explore what it might be like to experience stroke, we read several excerpts from Dr. Jill Taylor’s book entitled, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. Although it took eight years and special conditioning therapy treatments, Dr. Taylor, a neuroscientist who had been working at Harvard during the time of her stroke, eventually made a full recovery and wrote a book in which she describes, with almost perfect detail, what it felt like to have a stroke. Many of Dr. Taylor’s observations on feelings of dissociation, self-perception, memory, and euphoria resonated strongly with the class. Several useful thoughts emerged and were revisited in the classroom and on the forum. In particular, “Thetaville,” referenced only briefly in the beginning of Dr. Taylor’s book, captured the interest of the class. We discussed its potential existence as the connection between the conscious (awake) and unconscious (asleep) states.
“Sleepily, I hit the snooze button just in time to catch the next mental wave back into dreamland. Here, in this magic land I call “Thetaville”— a surreal place of altered consciousness somewhere between dreams and stark reality — my spirit beamed beautiful, fluid, and free from the confines of normal reality.” Described similarly to the hazy state between being awake and being asleep, the majority of our class could personally relate to the experience of “Thetaville” and the feeling of partial awareness during in-between sleep and wake states. When asked, does being in “Thetaville” ever make you feel anxious, helpless or out of control, almost everyone in the class reported that while in this state of middle consciousness, feelings of worry and panic did not exist. As mentioned on the forum, an experience in “Thetaville” may appear very similar to the way that one would experience a mind state while on psychedelic drugs. For me, “Thetaville” represents an escape into a pleasant innocence in which one can experience the world around without having to engage in higher orders of commitment and stress. “Thetaville” does not need to remain pleasantly innocent. There does seem to be a calming appeal to living in fantasy as compared with our own reality.
Issues surrounding “locked in” patients similarly drew our class toward discussion of “Thetaville,” middle consciousness, and the implications that “Thetaville” may have on the overall quality of life experienced by a patient who is locked in. If, like Dr. Taylor, we are to believe that this pleasurable “middle consciousness” can be achieved via half awake and half asleep phases, then we must also believe that it is possible to achieve the feelings of beauty, fluidity, and freeness from the confines of normal reality without the use of psychedelic drugs. Do we capitalize on this possibility? Perhaps in the future, patients with locked in syndrome could receive therapeutic assistance and mind control training in order to better allow them to switch between consciousness states. Still, it is important to keep in mind that Dr. Taylor was a neuroscientist. She describes her behavior as relatively calm and understanding during her stroke experience. This experience of “middle consciousness” may be more achievable for people who are already relaxed and open to escaping reality.
Another really interesting idea that emerged from the discussion on Dr. Jill Taylor and stroke was that consciousness could exist without language. Prior to this discussion, the majority of the class (including myself) assumed that language was a requirement for consciousness. However, Dr. Taylor's account of her stroke revealed that although her language abilities were lost, she was still conscious as demonstrated by her very vivid recollection of experiencing the things that happened during the stroke. Something similar to this may also be true for babies. Long before babies develop language, they demonstrate self-awareness and the ability to learn from the world around them.
Finally, the class as a whole found Dr. Taylor’s personal narrative interesting, but highly problematic. Serious questions were raised about whether or not her individual “study” can be taken as strong evidence to support the potential for stroke recovery. The full truth is that we, as animals, behave the way we want to behave. At our core, we are each very different from one another. For some, getting closer to our own inner reality is more important than it is to others. Through meditation, or in my case, yoga, it is possible to take our minds and body into undiscovered areas of consciousness. By flowing with breath through different yoga postures, I feel the most connected to the middle consciousness state, “Thetaville”. However, we are shaped by the culture that we live in, and for many who experience stroke, the window of opportunity for recovery may never open because the doors of the mind may have been closed too long to the possibility.