Sara K. Schneider's Skin in the Game

Reflections on body, culture, and spiritual practice

Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey

A Harvard brain scientist who suffered a massive stroke in her late 30s, Jill Bolte Taylor has unique qualifications to understand the decimation of many of her left brain’s functions as each occurred. Once she recognized she was having a stroke, she exclaimed to herself, “How many scientists have the opportunity to study their own brain function and mental deterioration from the inside out?”

Ironically, the very capacities Taylor would need to use to make sense of her condition were the very ones to be damaged, some for years to come. In her memoir of the stroke, Taylor retells, blow-by-blow, the collapse of the brain functions associated with recognizing and producing language. What she gains through her stroke is a mystical experience of the unity of all creation, which she postulates can only happen once the left brain is quieted.

Thus, the book offers what could be considered both a participant-observer’s account and a scientist’s analysis within the emerging field of neurotheology, which attempts to associate precise, “objective” locations in the brain with mystical experience. Blogger Elizabeth Kadetsky (http://happydays.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/07/08/living-in-the-moment/?emc=eta1) likewise remarked the similarity of her mother’s state of mind, once Alzheimer’s disease had set in, to the state aspired to by Eastern and Western yogis alike and celebrated in Patanjali’s first yoga sutra, often translated as, “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.”

As she realized she was having the stroke, Taylor recognized she was losing the associations between bits of knowledge she knew she possessed. She then dropped a perduring sense of her purpose in phoning for help, and finally lost the ability to recognize the numbers on her doctor’s business card as anything but squiggles. Yet in her debilitated condition, Taylor was at war. Part of her wanted never to return to the land of language, to the argumentative, even arrogant, scientist she characterizes herself as having been. For what she experienced, as her consciousness centered largely in the holistic perceptions of the right brain, was the sense of the reality of her being, the fluctuating boundaries of the self. No longer taking as real either her own personality as Jill Bolte Taylor or that personality’s attachments, she found she felt no obligation to be “Jill Bolte Taylor.” Rather, she realized, “I am a fluid.”

Gradually, through years of rehabilitation and tender re-parenting by her mother, Taylor miraculously recovered her full capacities, learning how to perform as she had once done Jill Bolte Taylor once again in her public speaking engagements by studying previous performances on videotape.

In My Stroke of Insight, Taylor relies heavily on her scientific background and her perceptions from within the stroke state. While she gives credit to the findings of analytical brain scientists, she heroicizes her own brain’s adventure, never acknowledging those experimenters in the direct experience of reality associated with both Eastern and Western meditation practices. Yet, in addition to documenting their own experiences in first-person accounts and in guides for practice, Buddhist meditators have had their brain patterns while in meditation widely studied in the Western laboratories Taylor champions.

The pioneering achievement of My Stroke of Insight, therefore, is not its evocation of an enforced state of consciousness similar to self-realization, but rather its systematic portrait of intellectual and perceptual breakdown–uniquely undertaken by psychonaut Taylor.

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October 15, 2010 - Posted by | Books

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