Jill Bolte Taylor was a 37-year-old neuroscientist working at Harvard when she suffered a stroke. I heard about her through an e-mail attachment and listened to her tell the story of her eight-year recovery. The story was so moving that I went out and got her book My Stroke of Insight (Viking, 2008). Dr. Taylor’s book is a poetic elegy on bliss, as well as an anatomically detailed description of brain function, and it moved me deeply.
At 7:00 a.m. on Dec. 10, 1996, Jill Taylor felt a piercing pain behind her left eye from a blood vessel that had just burst. A Ph.D. in Neuroanatomy, she was uniquely qualified to describe what happened within minutes after her left-brain injury. After the intense pain, she could feel her body disconnecting from her mind, and blending with the space around her. “My perception of physical boundaries was no longer limited to where my skin met air. I was enfolded in a blanket of tranquil euphoria….at one with the world and all its creatures, part of a magnificent field of shimmering energy….I felt like a genie liberated from its bottle”.
This euphoric nirvana was accompanied by a deterioration of her ability to walk, talk, read and write, and recall much of her life. Jill describes the impact of the damage to the left side of her brain—the rational, grounded, organized, analytic part, and what happens when the right side picks up the slack—that’s the artistic, unencumbered, spiritual side.
My Stroke of Insight is a great short read, written honestly like a prayer from the heart; it’s a healing journey that will inspire you. But let me also make clear that not all left-sided brain injuries lead to such blissful insightfulness. Some people sink into difficult moody states and can act out in problematic ways. For Jill Taylor, her stroke recovery meant choosing to live a more spiritual life. She makes clear that by saying spiritual life she doesn’t mean religion. Religion, she says, is a story that the left brain tells the right brain. The right brain feels that awesome awareness without having the need to define it.
Now fully recovered, she says she can get into her right brain self whenever she wants to. If she feels anger rising, Jill thinks about somebody, something, or some activity that brings her pleasure. She doesn’t need to meditate to prepare herself; she says you just have to believe that you can tame the left-brain mind. She now makes the time for her physical and visual passions (waterskiing, guitar playing, and stained glass making), believing that by exercising the right brain she promotes a consciousness that leads to a more peaceful, spiritual life.
There are areas of the brain that are hardwired for spiritual experience which allows us to move beyond our physical boundaries, time and space. But we tend to subordinate that part to our dominant, controlling mind. Here is a distinguished neuroscientist telling us we can feel greater peace in our lives, if we spend more time exercising our right brain.
I love this story! Feeling bliss is not just a drug-induced, altered state of consciousness, it is something we can create for ourselves anywhere. If we can get stroked into bliss, and maybe do it without blowing a blood vessel, then maybe we can even do it together as a planet…now that’s bliss.