One of the most fascinating talks at the TED conference so far was given by Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist, who gave a riveting account of a stroke she experienced in 1996.
Taylor’s knowledge of the brain made her the perfect witness to her body’s gradual shutdown. Over the course of four hours she watched her body deteriorate in stages, all the while processing its breakdown as if she were a curious explorer taking field notes. The first to go was her perception of herself as separate from the objects around her.
I should step back and say that before she described what happened to her brain and body, she brought out a real brain on stage, with spinal cord attached to it, and explained the distinctions between the functions performed by the right and left hemispheres of the brain. The right hemisphere, she said, is all about the present. It processes information from the sensory systems to give us a picture of the current moment — what it looks, smells, sounds and feels like.
The left hemisphere makes a collage of the present moment, picks out details and categorizes them and associates them with everything in the past that we’ve ever learned and then projects it into the future to determine possibilities. It’s the left hemisphere she says where brain chatter resides and the voice that says “I am.” This is the part of the brain that says we’re something separate from the scenery around us, and this is the part of the brain she temporarily lost during her stroke.
So on the morning of December 10, 1996, Taylor awoke with pounding, caustic pain behind her left eye. It came in waves, gripping and releasing her. Nonetheless, she started her morning routine, oblivious to what was happening. She jumped on an exercise machine and looked down at her hands and says they looked like primitive claws to her. She didn’t recognize her body as hers.
“It was as though my consciousness had shifted away from my consciousness of personality to where a mysterious person was having this experience,” she said.
She also couldn’t define the boundaries of where her body ended and the things around her began. The molecules of her arm blended with the molecules in the wall. It made her feel enormous and expansive and connected to all of the energy around her, which gave her a sense of peace.
“Imagine what it would feel like to lose thirty-seven years of emotional baggage,” she said.
It occurred to her that she had to get to work, but then her right arm became paralyzed and that’s when she finally realized she was having a stroke. She says rather than feel panic, her brain said, “Wow, this is so cool” — proof that scientists don’t think like the rest of us.
She decided to call her office but didn’t know the number. So she pulled out a stack of business cards, sifting for one with her work number. It took 45 minutes to get through a third of the cards. By then, however, the hemorrhage had grown and she didn’t know how to work the phone. She waited for a moment of clarity to return — it came in waves — but when she tried to dial the number from one of the cards it just looked like squiggles. She matched the shapes of the squiggles on the card to the squiggles on the phone and eventually reached a colleague. When he answered the phone, all she heard him say was, “Whaa, whaa, whaa” — a bit like the sound the adults in Peanuts cartoons make. When she opened her mouth to respond, the same sound came from her.
Later when she was in the ambulance she felt the energy in her body lift and her spirit surrender.
“In that moment I knew that I was no longer the choreographer of my life,” she said. She woke up later that afternoon, surprised that she was still alive. Two and a half weeks later surgeons removed a blood-clot the size of a golf ball from her skull.
It took her eight years to completely recover.