Author: Jill Bolte Taylor
What does a neuroscientist experience when ‘an undiagnosed congenital malformation of blood vessels…erupted ‘unexpectedly’ in her brain (page 1). How did her academic background help her to make sense of this catastrophic brain haemorrhage? And what lessons did she learn about illness and recovery that were worth sharing? In answering these questions, the author vividly depicts the onset and progression of her stroke, and her treatment and eventual recovery from her disability. She however insists that her intention is not to write a book about stroke; rather, she set out to paint a refreshing picture of the brain as a beautiful and resilient organ, and of humans as ‘feeling creatures that think’ rather than ‘thinking creatures that feel’ (pages 3 and 19). Even though she is a trained neuroscientist, she said her experience taught her as much about brain function ‘as I had in all my years of academia‘ (page 3). By recognising and accurately interpreting her unusual symptoms, she came to a remarkable insight: that the right brain hemisphere is brimming with suppressed resources, and we can learn to access these assets which have the potential to greatly improve our lives and relationships (page 1).
The author was cruelly struck down by stroke in her mid-thirties, at a time that both her social and academic works were flourishing. Her stroke narrative however was anything but dry academic musings. Rather, she blended scholastic narrative with lyrical prose to project the deeply moving and exhilarating emotions she went through. For example, she described her stroke as ‘the journey I took into the formless abyss of a silent mind, where the essence of my being became enfolded in a deep inner space‘ (page 1). She also portrayed the comforting emotions she went through as ‘an expanding sense of grace‘. She painted many other similarly uplifting feelings such as when she said ‘I met a growing sense of peace…’ and ‘…no longer perceived myself as a whole object separate from everything. Instead, I now blended in with the space and flow around me’ (pages 41-42). Her experience became more spiritual as she recovered her awareness, as reflected by her use of phrases such as ‘the energy of my spirit‘ (page 67). Most of her physical symptoms were also intriguing consequences of stroke, such as when she ‘could not determine how my body was positioned, where it began or where it ended‘ (page 65). The stroke however eventually left her very disabled, and it took her eight years to fully recover her physical and mental functions (pages 11 and 35). She narrated, in detail, the slow and painstaking recovery of her faculties of speech, reading, walking, and the use money (pages 87- 104).
The difference between the two brain hemispheres dominated her academic reflections of her stroke. She pointed out that, although the two hemispheres are relatively symmetrical and closely integrated, they are quite diverse in how they process information, and the types of information they process’ (page 25-29). For example she said the right hemisphere is ‘spontaneous, carefree, and imaginative‘, and it ‘allows our artistic juices to flow free without inhibition of judgment‘ (page 30). The left hemisphere on the other hand ‘thrives on weaving facts and details‘ (page 31). Whilst the right hemisphere uses ‘the more subtle cues of language including tone of voice, facial expression, and body language’, the left hemisphere uses words ‘to describe, define, catagorize, and communicate’ (pages 34 and 31). She went on to interpret her stroke symptoms in the context of the release of her right hemisphere from the control of the dominant left hemisphere. For example she said ‘in the absence of my left hemisphere’s analytical judgment, I was completely entranced by the feelings of tranquility, safety, blessedness, euphoria, and omniscience‘ (page 49). She repeatedly referred to the deep inner peace, loving compassion, and empathy inherent in the right hemisphere, and she made several recommendations to readers on how to tune in and access these right hemisphere qualities in their daily lives (page 134).
The book is not just a narrative of stroke experience; it goes much further by linking the symptoms of stroke to the anatomy and function of different parts of the brain. An example is how the amygdala functions ‘to scan all incoming stimulation…and determine the level of safety’ (page 19). The neuroscience lessons were peppered with many interesting facts, such as how the human cortex is twice as thick as other mammalian brains (pages 13 and 15). The author enhanced the academic narrative with several simple illustrations making it easy for lay readers to grasp concepts such as the limbic system and cortical organisation (pages 18 and 21). She complemented these with many historical references, such as to Meinard Simon du Pui who, in 1780, had the first intimation that each hemisphere had its own mind. Another reference is to Roger Sperry whose split-brain experiments demonstrated that the two brain hemispheres use different mental strategies (page 28).
The author recounted several positive and negative experiences of being a hospital patient, and these are invaluable reading for every doctor. For example, she extolled the good qualities she saw in many of her carers, such as the doctor who ‘took the time…to lean down near my face and speak softly to me… he touched my arm to reassure me… he treated me with respect‘ (page 75). She also appreciated the nurse who ‘was very attentive to my needs…she made eye contact and was clearly providing me with a healing space‘ (page 75). She was also full of praise for her neurologist who ‘did not leave my bedside until she was confident that I had no more need of her’ (page 84). She was gratified that her neurologist ‘did not simply speak to the others about me’ but ‘spoke directly to me as though I could understand…’ (page 87). She valued the health professionals who, ‘by connecting with me…and speaking to me calmly‘ ‘brought me energy’ (page 82). She was particularly ‘saddened by the inability of the medical community to know how to communicate with someone in my condition’ (page 78).
Further lessons for doctors abound in the author’s insightful experiences during her recovery and rehabilitation. She stressed that ‘I desperately needed people to treat me as though I would recover completely‘ (pages 110-111). She urged caregivers to ‘focus on my ability, not my disability‘, saying this strategy is critical for a ‘successful recovery’ (page 117). She said ‘I wanted my doctors to focus on how my brain was working rather than on whether it worked according to their criteria or timetable’ (page 78). Emphasising the importance of letting stroke patients preserve their energy and get sufficient rest, she pointed out that ‘unfortunately, it is not common for stroke survivors to be permitted to sleep as much as they would like’ (page 90). She compiled a comprehensive appendix of do’s and don’ts of rehabilitation which every healthcare provider should read.
The book successfully projected ideas and lessons that are scientific but also deeply human. The author carefully explained the anatomical and physiological basis of all aspects of her stroke, and she simplified her narrative for the general reader. Importantly, she made many key recommendations to health care workers on the needs of people in her condition. Her account glossed over many details of her medical investigations and acute treatment; this is however probably deliberate as the book focussed on the capacity of the brain to recover, rather than on details of medical technology and interventions. Whilst some may be put off by the spiritual overtone of her narrative, I think many others may find this refreshing.
This is an insightful book on how the brain works, and how it is affected by a major disruption such as a stroke. In the light of her academic background, the author was well-placed to describe and interpret her stroke experience. The book is full of lessons for all doctors and caregivers, and I highly recommend it.
Publisher, Place, Year: Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2009
Number of chapters: 20
Number of pages: 183
Star rating: 5