mystery of life
Brittany Hambleton
Brittany Hambleton
December 3, 2023 ·  6 min read

Harvard-Trained Brain Researcher Has a Stroke And Figures Out The Mystery of Life

What happens when a brain researcher has a stroke? In the case of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, it gives them the opportunity to study the brain from the inside out. It also provides them with fascinating insights into life.

Not to mention it can lead to a book deal, one of the most-watched Ted Talks of all time, and an interview with Oprah.

When a Brain Researcher Has a Stroke

One morning, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor woke up with a large hemorrhage on the left side of her brain. The then 37-year-old was a neuroscientist who was working her way up the ladder at Harvard. After suffering a massive stroke, however, she was unable to walk, talk, read, or remember anything about her life [1].

It took eight years for her to fully recover all of her cognitive, emotional, and physical function. During that time, the scientist in her watched, fascinated by what was going on in her body. After her recovery, she wrote a memoir entitled My Stroke of Insight. She also gave an extraordinarily popular Ted Talk, Time Magazine listed her as one of the top most influential people in the world, and she did an interview on Oprah [2].

She describes the early days following her stroke as being “an infant in a woman’s body”:

“I had no skills. I had no language in my mind telling me I was Jill,” she explained. “Without knowing who you are, you have no data about your life beyond the present moment experience of being hungry or being tired or being in awe. So it was a process of regaining a worldview that existed beyond what I could see and smell and taste.” [1]

A few weeks after the initial incident, she had surgery to remove the blood clot in her brain. The left side of the brain, she says, is responsible for language. For this reason, she explains that she had an “absolutely silent mind” for two and a half weeks after surgery. Once her brain began thinking in language again, her world began to grow.

Over the next eight years, doctor Taylor slowly began to regain who she was. After three months, she was able to understand and communicate about very simple things. After four or five months, she could read but had zero comprehension. It took her four or five years before she could read her own academic papers [1].

Despite these hardships, there is a unique opportunity when a brain researcher has a stroke versus anyone else: a deeper understanding of the mind.

Left Brain Vs. Right Brain

Taylor explains in her Ted Talk that the two hemispheres of the brain are almost completely separate from one another. For this reason, they process information differently. This means that each hemisphere thinks about different things and cares about different things. Dr. Taylor describes them as having “very different personalities”.

She explains that the right hemisphere is all about the present moment- the right here, right now. It thinks in pictures and 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, smells like, tastes like, feels like and what it sounds like.” [3]

Essentially, your right hemisphere is what makes you a conscious being that is connected to what is around you. It connects us all together as one human family.

The left hemisphere, on the other hand, thinks in a linear and methodical fashion.The left hemisphere looks at that giant collage and starts picking out details. It categorises all that information, associates it with what we know from our past, and projects it into the future.

“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 them in the morning.” [3]

More importantly, she says, that voice is the voice that says “I am”. And once it says that, you become a single, solid individual, separate from the energy flow around you and other people. This is the side of her brain that she completely lost.

Read: After Cancer Wiped Out His Family, This Researcher Taught Our Immune Systems To Fight Back

A New Outlook on Life

So when a brain researcher has a stroke, how does her view on life change?

Dr. Taylor’s stroke, she says, shifted her away from believing that she was the center of her own world. Because that entire circuit went offline, the idea of “me and mine” no longer mattered.

“In the absence of the focus of my life being me, I shifted into a consciousness and awareness that I’m a part of a greater humanity,” she explained [2].

Instead of thinking about what she wants and the steps she needs to take to get there, she’s more flexible and open to all possibilities. She moved away from a linear view of her relationship with the world.

Some may perceive this way of thinking as fearlessness, but she prefers to describe it as “flow”.

“I think fear is in relationship to the left brain thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I’m going to jump off this job because I believe there’s something better out there for me’ as opposed to, ‘I will do this job because it fits into the bigger picture of who and how I want to be in the world’.” [2]

She explains that the stroke erased thirty years of emotional baggage and set her on a new path of possibilities. She felt a sense of relief because she was no longer juggling a billion details the way she was in her “previous life”.

“Probably the biggest difference between who I am today and who I used to be is that I trust the details are going to fall in place as they’re supposed to fall in place with just a little direction from me,” she said. “I don’t have to go out and try to control the world, which I can’t do anyway.” [1]

A Brain Researcher Has a Stroke… and Learns the Meaning of Life

At the end of her Ted Talk, Dr. Taylor answers the age-old question: who are we? Her answer is profound, inspiring, and poetic.

“We are the life-force power of the universe, with manual dexterity and two cognitive minds,” she says. “And we have the power to choose, moment by moment, who and how we want to be in the world.” [3]

She describes this as the “we inside of me”. She asks the audience: which would you choose? Which do you choose, and when?

“I believe that the more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner-peace circuitry of our right hemispheres, the more peace we will project into the world, and the more peaceful our planet will be.” [3]

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