Recovery, Resilience and Paying Attention, with Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor
Parvati Magazine’s Wellness Editor Dr. Karen Ho spoke with neuroanatomist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor about her near-catastrophic stroke, recovery, and resilience.
Parvati Magazine: Tell me about your shift in consciousness as a result of your stroke.
Jill Taylor: I became so aware that I have two different ways of perceiving the world, what I referred to as the left-brained and right-brained way. I became so aware that every thought, feeling, physiological sensation is the product of the magnificent neurons I have inside my head. When I really acknowledged that, I could feel incredible love, passion, sadness, anger or fear, and I know that this was produced by my brain cells. What this gives me then is an ability to observe myself instead of identifying with what these cells produce. Since the stroke, I have been able to step to the “right” of my perceptions and understand that so much of our experience is a product of neural circuitry and more importantly, I have a choice to engage or not engage that circuit. With that comes incredible freedom.
PMAG: You had this great belief in the brain’s plasticity or potential to heal. Was this the key to your recovery?
JT: Yes, we have no idea how much neuroplasticity would allow me to become a functioning person again. Also, my mother and I were very close. When I suffered my stroke, she believed that my brain knew better than any other person what it needed to recover. We both believed that by paying attention to its messaging, we would do our best to set me up for success. So that was how we approached it: How could we serve its recovery? Of course, there was a lot of dedication, patience, and getting out of my own way. But we also did not set an expectation for Jill to come back the same way she was before the stroke. I did not need to be the same person I was before.
In a way, I had no choice. The old Jill died that day. For me, the most remarkable thing is: I didn’t die that day. My old life was over, but I was still alive and I still have the potential for something new. That gratitude was everything. It was the seed that gave me life.
PMAG: How can we better integrate the left and right brain functions?
JT: Paying attention is the first step. We have to know what it feels like when I am making a judgement about something, our likes and dislikes, what is good or bad. What does it feel like to run that specific neural circuitry? For example, if I am making a judgement about somebody. If I am in my left brain, I usually have more consternation on my brow, bite my jaw or hold my body differently. I encourage people to become familiar with this part of themselves — how does this feel? How often they are in this space, what they do to fuel this. Then there is another part of me, the right brained part that is much more open, creative, who doesn’t take things too seriously. So, paying attention and getting to know the different parts of you, allows you to choose, moment by moment, which to be.
PMAG: Give us a clue about your upcoming book.
JT: We don’t just have two cerebral cortices or cognitive minds — we have two limbic systems, or emotional systems. The right limbic system is expansive, open and present; the left is powerful, energetic and attached to past and future. I think that by learning more about these two different emotional systems, it will give more clarity to people about feeling, and how this leads them to operate in the world.
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor is a Harvard-trained and published neuroanatomist who experienced a severe hemorrhage in the left hemisphere of her brain in 1996. She could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life. It took eight years for her to completely recover. She is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. Dr. Jill feels passionate about helping others find their way back from neurological trauma and created the not-for-profit organization Jill Bolte Taylor BRAINS.