Skip to content

Your Personal Best: Jill Bolte Taylor

On December 10, 1996, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor
woke up with a pounding, pulsating pain
behind her left eye. She was hypersensitive
to light, and her hands were curled up like
claws. “It was as though I was witnessing
myself having this experience rather than me being the
person having this experience,” she tells SUCCESS.

At 37, Taylor was having a stroke. And she thought it
was amazing.

Every 45 seconds, someone suffers a stroke in the United
States. But Taylor was a brain scientist, a neuroanatomist at
Harvard’s Brain Tissue Resource Center. And so, over the next
four hours, as a blood clot the size of a golf ball slowly hemorrhaged
to the size of a fi st in her brain’s left hemisphere, she
observed herself not just as a stroke victim, but as an expert
on the brain.

In 2006, Taylor published the New York Times best-selling
My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey.
Today, she is a sought-after speaker, addressing medical and
nursing schools, corporations and even spiritual organizations.
She was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 Most
Infl uential People in the World for 2008, and her speech
at the February 2008 TED (Technology, Entertainment,
Design) Conference became a viral video that was seen by
more than 5 million viewers.

The stroke occurred in Taylor’s left hemisphere, which
is the logical, sequential, organized side of the brain,
concerned with numbers, words and time. The right hemisphere
is the intuitive, kinesthetic side that views the world in
pictures and sees everything in the present moment.

That morning, as Taylor’s left brain began to shut down, she
tried to continue with her morning routine. But when she lost
her balance in the bathtub, she had a startling realization: She
could no longer perceive boundaries around solid objects. She
couldn’t tell where her hand stopped and where the wall started.
“And through the eyes of a scientist,” she says, “I was really
thinking, This is totally cool, totally interesting. But what is wrong
with my brain?

Taylor was alone, and as she got out of the tub, her right
arm became paralyzed. “As soon as that happened, that was
when I realized, Oh my gosh, I’ve got paralysis. That’s a warning
sign of stroke. I’m having a stroke. And then I thought, Wow,
this is so cool. How many brain scientists have the opportunity
to do this?”

She knew she needed to call for help but couldn’t
remember any phone numbers. Words and symbols didn’t
register with her deteriorating brain. She drifted back and
forth between moments of brief clarity and moments of
great peace. “When I wasn’t in my left brain attending
to details and going through this process [of fi nding a
phone number], I would drift off into my right hemisphere
consciousness, which was very peaceful and very blissful.
There was no sense of urgency and there was no sense of
fear. There was just this overwhelming sense of love and
openness and being as big as the universe.”

After managing to match the “squiggles” on a
business card to the “squiggles” on the phone, she
reached a co-worker. When he spoke to her, he
sounded “like a golden retriever. And I realized I
couldn’t understand language. And then I tried to
speak and the same ‘roar-roar-roar’ comes out of me.
And it was like, oh my gosh, I sound like a golden
retriever.”

After being stabilized at Massachusetts General
Hospital, she was completely disabled. “I could not
walk, talk, read, write or recall any of my life,” she
says. “I was essentially an infant.”

She underwent surgery, and
over the next eight years,
Taylor, with help from her
mother, relearned everything.
She learned to sit up, to use a
fork, to tie her shoes. But she made
agonizingly slow process. For example,
her mother would teach her to put on
her socks and at another time to put on
her shoes. “But if you laid my shoes and
socks in front of me and said put them on,
I would not know that you had to put the
socks on before you put the shoes on because
I had no linearity to my thinking. And because
I had no linearity, I could not multitask.”

Later, she learned vocabulary and conversation.
She learned to read. “That was a
particularly diffi cult and painful process for
me,” she says. “Very complicated.” Because the
right hemisphere thinks in pictures instead
of words, she retained images of anatomy and
brain structure, but no words to go along with
them, so she also relearned the language of
her career.

But the brain is designed specifi cally to overcome
such enormous obstacles, Taylor says. “You
know, it’s amazing that we are programmed for
the brain to change, to adapt, to recover. It’s an
absolutely amazing thing we’ve got inside of
our heads.”

She compiled most of what she learned during
her recovery in her book, including 40 things
she needed most as a stroke survivor, a list to aid
caregivers.

So what’s different now? Today, she is more
artistic, thanks to a heightened ability to see
the world with her more visually oriented right
hemisphere. Among her works are stained-glass
replicas of the brain. And she can sing on key, a
new development since the stroke.

"If
we look at our anger as simply a form of brain circuitry, we can take steps to diffuse that circuitry."

“It has fundamentally shifted me,” she says.
“Before, I was very left-brain-driven. I was a
high achiever. My whole focus was
really on my career.” She still works
as the national spokesperson for
the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource
Center, is an adjunct instructor
at the Indiana University School
of Medicine and the consulting
neuroanatomist on brain cancer for
the Midwest Proton Radiotherapy
Institute. She also serves as president
of the Bloomington, Ind.,
affiliate of NAMI (the National
Alliance on Mental Illness) and is
collaborating on Wii-like gaming
tools for neurological rehabilitation
from brain trauma. But she doesn’t
stay so busy to boost her career.

“Now, I’m more concerned about having limited time in this body,”
she says. “I have had an incredible experience and have incredible
opportunities to apply what I have learned to the betterment of
humanity. We are all essentially programmed for deep inner peace
right there in the core of our right hemispheres.”

Taylor’s goal today is to share what she’s learned about how our
brains affect our daily lives, which is the insight she refers to in
her book. “We are circuitry. We are thinking circuitry, emotional
circuitry and physiological circuitry.” She explains that it only takes
90 seconds for us to think a thought, have an emotional response,
such as anger, and then a physiological response that fl ushes in and
through us. “And I think that really has the power to change how we
look at ourselves and how we look at others.”

Because if we look at our anger as simply a form of brain circuitry,
we can take steps to diffuse that circuitry. “Instead of saying I’m mad,
I’m madder than hell, say, I’m running my anger circuitry. Wow.
” You
observe the anger circuitry run its course instead of acting out. “And
once that happens, then you have the power to just let it come and go,”
she says. “You don’t have to rethink the thoughts that re-stimulate the
feeling. You think about something else.” Redirecting your mind, as
you would for a child throwing a tantrum, allows the circuitry to stop
running and the anger to dissipate.

This insight also has the power to help curtail stress. The part
of the brain that causes stress is mainly centered in the left hemisphere.
“It’s the left brain that’s talking to us all the time,” Taylor says.
“It’s telling us we’re behind; it’s telling us we’re late. It’s our worry
circuitry.” So when we’re stressed and our mind is fi lled with what ifs,
it’s important to remember that the left brain is just doing its job. And
that we have a choice instead to use the right brain to bring us back
into the present moment.

“The present moment is a great moment. I’m just grateful to be
alive. I’m just grateful I have my health. I’m just grateful I have my
eyes and can see. I’m just grateful I have bladder control because I’m
caught in traffi c. You know, we have alternative ways of looking at
things. And the alternative is to bring my mind right here, right now,
back to the present moment. It’s the little things,” she says. “And it’s a
choice. That’s the point: It’s a choice.”

Leave a Comment