Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, speaking to one of her massive audiences, describes what it’s like having a stroke from inside out. Photo by Michael Collopy
One morning a blood vessel in Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s brain exploded. As a brain scientist, she realized she had a ringside seat to her own stroke. She watched as her brain functions shut down one by one: motion, speech, memory self-awareness. Amazed to find herself alive, Dr. Taylor details in her memoir, My Stroke Of Insight, eight years of recovering her ability to think, walk and talk. Although the stroke damaged the left side of her brain, her recovery unleashed a torrent of creative energy from her right. From her home base in Indiana, she now travels the country on behalf of the Harvard Brain Bank. As she says: “How many brain scientists have been able to study the brain from the inside out? I’ve gotten as much out of this experience of losing my left mind as I have in my entire academic career.”
I had the distinct honor of sitting down with Dr. Taylor and hearing what she learned from her experience and how all of us can use her wisdom on a daily basis.
Bryan Robinson: Jill, tell me the story of how all this started.
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor: One day I woke up with a major hemorrhage in the left half of my brain. Of course, I didn’t know what the problem was, just that I was having a problem. But through the eyes of a scientist, I was fascinated with what was going on. Over the course of four hours I couldn’t walk, talk, breathe right or recall any of my life. That’s all documented in my memoir, My Stroke Of Insight. It took eight years for me to completely recover all function—cognitive, emotional as well as physical. I wrote the memoir, gave a Ted Talk that went viral and was chosen as Time Magazine’s one of the 1oo most influential people in the world in 2008. Then I was interviewed by Oprah, and my world changed.
Robinson: Can you talk about your meta-awareness or resilience as all of this was happening?
Taylor: I was bouncing in and out of the consciousness of my right brain. The left brain had the hemorrhage, growing at an enormous rate over those four hours. By the time I got to the hospital, the hemorrhage was about the size of my fist in my left hemisphere. Over the course of the morning, I drifted into blissful euphoria, the consciousness of my right brain. And then I would come back online and attend to the details to get myself help. It was a movement in and out of being aware of external reality. I was completely conscious through the entire experience, but only at some point could I attend to detail in the external world, recognize that it existed or even care.
Robinson: So the fear factor wasn’t there?
Taylor: No, I was very blessed. I had zero fear. I was there in blissful euphoria in the right brain. Or I was in the left brain, preoccupied trying to figure out what I needed to do to orchestrate a rescue.
Robinson: So over a course of eight years you learned to walk, speak and read. Where did that come from? That resilience?
Taylor: I wonder if it’s resilience or motivation—that spark of energy that pushes you towards something knowing it’s still going to take effort, the ability to keep moving forward. There are circuits inside of the brain that are counterproductive to our willingness to try and our willingness to be resilient to accept “what is” as opposed to “what we want it to be.” If you’re experiencing trauma, by definition some of your cells are not online, something from your normal has changed. You’re experiencing a shift in your cellular network of function. What that means is that certain cells have gone off line because they died or are nonfunctional. When that gets messed up, those cells are no longer going to be functioning.
Robinson: So would this apply to someone who is burning out or stressed out at work?
Taylor: Being stressed out at work is a circuity. And it’s the cortisol circuit that’s running too high. And when that circuit is running, it’s dominating other circuits from running. Cells fire in groups or modules. If the stress module is online, it’s inhibiting other cells from dominating.
Robinson: How did your experience change your outlook on life? Or did it?
Taylor: One hundred percent. It shifted me away from believing that I was the center of my world and that “me and mine” is what matters. That consciousness of me as an individual—that whole circuit went off line. 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. I’m more open, expansive and flexible to possibilities as opposed to here’s what I want and these are the steps I’m going to take to get what I want. I function inside of a hierarchy of people above me and below me and I’m climbing a ladder. So I shifted away from the linear way of looking at the world and my relationship to it, and I live more open to the possibilities of what can be, and what is the best match for me.
Robinson: Right. And that sounds like fearlessness, that openness to whatever and to the connection in a wider scope.
Taylor: I would say fearlessness is living the linear life and deciding that I’m going to be fearless in allowing there to be more that I don’t understand or know how it all fits together. The actual state is more flow. I think the 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.”
Robinson: I got it. So that way of thinking is automatic now for you since the stroke?
Taylor: That’s where I live. I exist in the flow of possibility, and I step into the world of linearity. So I go the other way now.
Robinson: That’s fascinating. As a result of your experience and knowledge of neuroscience, do you have any advice for the average person who has the odds stacked against them?
Taylor: Sleep. You have interviewed Arianna Huffington. And Arianna and I are the two loudest advocates on the planet. When it comes to the brain, sleep is everything. Every ability you have, you have brain cells that are communicating. When you’re walking, you have brain cells communicating with the muscles to move. The cells in your brain are constantly working. They eat and they create waste, so sleep is the optimal time for the waste to be cleared out between the cells so they can actually function. I compare it to when the garbage collectors go on strike, we know how congested the streets become. That’s exactly the same thing going on with the brain cells. If you wake up to an alarm before your system is ready to wake up, you have cut part of a cycle of sleep off that your brain wanted.
Robinson: So what would you recommend in terms of sleep?
Taylor: Sleep more until your brain wants to get up. If you’re not sleeping until your brain wakes you up to get up, then you’re not getting enough sleep. One of the worst things we can do is have an alarm. A typical sleep cycle runs between 90 and 110 minutes, so if you’re forcing yourself to get up in the middle of a cycle, then you just blew a whole cycle of rejuvenation for your brain. Sleep is about rejuvenating the brain.
Robinson: I have a quote here attributed to you, “When a person has a reaction to something in their environment, there’s a 90 second chemical process that happens. Any remaining emotional response is just the person choosing to stay in that emotional loop.”
Taylor: Yes. I call that the 90 second rule. Essentially, when you look at cells in the circuitry of the brain, every reactivity is simply a group of cells performing their function. From the moment you have the thought that there’s a threat and that circuit of fear gets triggered, it will stimulate the emotional circuitry related to it, which is the fight or flight reaction. That will trigger a physiological dump-age of usually nor-epinephrine or anger into the blood stream. It will flush through you and flush out of you in less than 90 seconds. So from the moment you think the thought that triggers that whole cascade of events to the chemical being flushed out of you completely takes less than 90 seconds. Next time you feel yourself triggered, look at the second hand on a watch. As soon as you look at it, you’re now observing yourself having this physiological response instead of engaging with it. It will take less than 90 seconds, and you will feel better. Of course, you can always go back to thinking those thoughts that re-stimulate the loop. There’s probably a thought somewhere in your brain of somebody who did you wrong 20 years ago. Every time you think of that person it still starts that circuit. And that 90 second rule has been used to educate the public about the anger circuitry. When things are getting hot and you’re getting hot headed, look at your watch. It takes 90 seconds to dissipate that anger response.
Robinson: You’re talking about self-regulation. The implication is that each of us can choose our reaction.
Taylor: Yes. We have the power to choose moment by moment how we want to be in the world. We actually have that power.
Robinson: Such good information. Any parting advice for people trying to keep balance in their lives?
Taylor: We have two very different hemispheres inside our head. One is right here, right now accepting, compassionate and open to possibilities and the kindness inside of us. As opposed to the left brain of “me, what is mine and how do I get more”—a value structure based on external judgment. But the authentic self is the part of us that I firmly believe shows up in the last five minutes of our lives. When we’re on our death bed, the left brain begins to dissipate. We shift out of all the accumulation and the external world because it’s no longer valuable. What is valuable is who are we as human beings and what did we do with our lives to help others? We all face that, and I think that is judgment day. But I don’t think it’s the judgment of something beyond us; it’s the judgment of ourselves. Those of us who are tangled up in the external judgment are not slowing down enough to reflect on the essence of who we are as human beings and what we could be in connection with one another.
Robinson: That brings spirituality and neuroscience together, doesn’t it?
Taylor: Spirituality, in my opinion, is the neuroscience circuitry inside our own heads that permits us the ability to have that experience. We are wired for spirituality just like we’re wired to move our bodies and for every ability we have. It’s a matter of what circuitry inside our brain is dominated. If all I value is my stress circuitry, then I will run that circuit. You can push, push and push which is what that stress circuitry is and that can be motivating. Stress is a great motivator until it becomes distress. The point at which it biologically becomes distress, it compromises the health and integrity of the cells inside of your body and Illness will pursue.
Robinson: Jill, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me.