My Stroke of Insight
Jill Bolte Taylor is a Harvard-trained neuro-anatomist who wrote a book called “My Stroke of Insight”, which is an account of her experience of a stroke that took place in the left hemisphere of her brain, when she was thirty-seven years old. She suffered from a major hemorrhage that was a result of a congenital malformation of blood vessels that erupted in her brain. As a result she experienced her brain function deteriorate within a period of four hours to such an extent that she was unable to read, write, walk, talk or remember any of her life.
Dr. Taylor talks about the duality of the human mind which I found to be very interesting. The two hemispheres of our brain perform differently when they connected to one another and differently when they are surgically separated. The two hemispheres of our brain have complementary functions and function as a whole when connected to each other. However when separated they function as two independent entities with very different personalities. Our right mind perceives the big picture and processes independent streams of information by creating a collage of what the current moment smells like, feels like, sounds like, tastes like and looks like. Our right mind allows us to process our surroundings and our relationship to them. It allows to us remember memories important to us. Our right mind lives in the present moment. Our right mind allows us to be creative, artistic, think intuitively and outside the box. Our left mind on the other hand, is very detail oriented and tries to fit these details in a linear and methodical fashion. It perceives the concept of time and breaks up time into the past, present and future. It is able to recognize patterns and understands using logic and deductive reasoning. The left mind is also our ego center that provides us with an internal awareness and defines our identity by saying “I am”. The left mind also perceives hierarchies and passes critical judgement and analysis. Our left mind is the home of our ego, it strives for independence and vies for the uniqueness of our individuality. Our left hemisphere also contains an orientation association area that helps it define the boundaries of the body, i.e. where the body begins and ends. Dr.Taylor began feeling like as if she merged with her surroundings when she experienced the stroke.
During her stroke, Dr.Taylor had an AVM that had burst in her head and left a large volume of blood, over the left hemisphere of her brain. As a result, her left hemisphere was becoming more and more disconnected from the right making her feel a disconnection between the languages and calculating skills of her left hemisphere. She was unable to maintain a cognitive connection to her external world. What I found the most interesting was her shifting perception of reality. As her left brain shut down, her right mind began taking over and she was able to perceive the world through the tranquility of her right mind. She began to feel a sense of liberation, the chatter in her head had completely seized and her consciousness slipped into a very peaceful silence. Dr. Taylor even pondered if this was the feeling that one experiences when one enters the state of Nirvana. She felt a feeling of euphoria and omniscience. She was unable to distinguish boundaries and felt like she merged with her surroundings. All the sounds that she heard were chaotic and undecipherable. Everything around her looked pixilated, like an impressionistic pointillism painting.
I am very interested in her modified perception of reality because I have heard and read accounts of very advanced yogis experiencing the same perception of reality that Dr. Taylor experienced when they were in a state of very deep meditation. The yogis were trying to use meditation to detach themselves from any kind of sensory input, resulting in them being able to transcend their body. The only difference between Dr. Taylor’s experience and the yogis was that the yogis were in total control of this experience that they were going through. In fact this experience was a direct result of very deep trance-like meditation. Looking at Dr. Taylor’s experience, maybe these yogi meditators detach themselves completely from their left hemisphere via meditation and are able to perceive a very different world. Dr. Taylor experience deep inner peace simply because she forgot all her connections with the external world. She forgot all the thirty-seven years of baggage that she carried, all the stresses of life and she was at complete peace, her soul feeling as vast as the universe connected to all the energy flow. This is the same feeling that yogis get when they attain moksha or Nirvana, they feel like they become one with the universal soul or the cosmic energy. Dr. Taylor felt like a free flowing fluid, not a well defined solid that her left mind had made her believe. She did not care about the past, present or future but just experienced the moment through her right mind.
In class we were discussing color perception and how it varies in different animals. Our perception of this world is defined by our biology, as seen in color perception. Every organism perceives this world differently, but this altered perception may not be a wrong perception, it may just be a different perception of this world. I think that Dr. Taylor’s stroke changed her biology temporarily and allowed her to perceive this world from a different aspect. Since many animals perceive this world in an entirely different manner than humans, it is possible that we in fact live in a world that has many worlds mapped onto it and that we are just part of one of these worlds. Maybe these worlds are able to be mapped onto each other because the atoms making up these different worlds vibrate at different frequencies and atoms vibrating at different frequencies emit different colors of light. So it is possible that birds that can see ultraviolet light see a whole new world that we cannot ever comprehend because it lies outside our experience. Therefore our biology dictates the world that we will be able to perceive, but Hinduism says that through meditation we can transcend our body and become a part of the cosmic energy. This may be because all these worlds within worlds may have a particular frequency at which all of them converge. If we are able to change the frequency or fine tune the frequency at which the atoms of our body vibrate, maybe we will be able to be in sync with the frequency at which all the worlds converge and transcend our body to become part of the universal soul. According to Hinduism, only meditation will allow you to do so.
Dr. Taylor was able to get help and receive treatment in hospital. It took her many years to recover completely but her being a brain scientist and understanding how the brain functions allowed her to recover faster. Her description of her out of body experience while suffering a stroke is fascinating. Her account of her treatment and its flaws are very helpful in treating future patients who suffer a stroke. Dr. Taylor also talks about the issue of shortage of human brains on which research could be conducted. She has been trying to increase the number of brain donations through an organization called NAMI (The National Alliance on Mental Illness). I found Dr. Taylor’s book very fascinating and insightful as it gives a very clear understanding of the functioning of the brain without being very difficult to understand.
Taylor,Bolte Jill. My Stroke of Insight. Penguin Books,2006