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In My Stroke of Insight, Jill Bolte Taylor tells the story of her massive stroke in December 1996 and her subsequent recovery. At the time she was a brain scientist in her thirties, and so she was able to understand how her brain was losing its capacities as her stroke progressed. She was also able to understand her recovery in scientific terms as she gradually recovered her abilities. It is a powerful tale, and Taylor is an eloquent speaker in interview. She was recently named one of Time's 2008 Most Influential People of the Year and she has recently appeared on Oprah, as well as on many other TV and radio shows. Her book does a great job at raising awareness of stroke and the process of recovery from stroke. She also discusses her brother who has schizophrenia, and how her experience with stroke gave her a better understanding of the needs of people with mental illness, and this is an interesting link between brain injury and severe mental disorder.
Nevertheless, Taylor makes many claims that are problematic. First, it is hard to believe her moment by moment account of her experience of her stroke. While she remained conscious through it all, it is hard to believe that she has a vivid and accurate memory of such major trauma to her brain that left her without verbal abilities for a long time. She explains how she lost the ability to process words, to see objects in three dimensions, and to move her own body. She was in pain and she was very scared. It is certainly unusual for people to remember what is happening to them when they are undergoing traumatic events, and to be able to give an accurate account of them afterwards: it is normally very confusing and unpleasant for them, and so their memories are often unreliable. While Taylor obviously has a great deal of confidence in her memories, there is no independent way to verify her claims. So her description of her experience would be better read as a speculative re-creation of the episode rather than a trustworthy memory.
However, it is Taylor's account of her right brain abilities and the insights she gained from the ceasing of her left brain functioning that is especially problematic. First off, her account of the differences between left and right brain abilities seems simplistic: she places all verbal ability in the left brain, while her right brain is a Zen master.
My right brain is all about the richness of this present moment. It is filled with gratitude for my life and everyone and everything in it. It is content, compassionate, nurturing, and eternally optimistic. To my right mind character, there is no judgment of good/bad or right/wrong, so everything exists on a continuum of relativity. It takes things as they are and acknowledges what is in the present. (139)
My right mind character is adventurous, celebrative of abundance, and socially adept. It is sensitive to nonverbal communication, empathetic, and accurately decodes emotion. My right mind is open to the eternal flow whereby I exist at one with the universe. It is the seat of my divine mind, the knower, the wise woman, and the observer. It is my intuition and higher consciousness. My right mind is ever present and gets lost in time. (140)
It is hard to believe that this is an accurate description of right hemisphere function; it sounds far more like an idealization from someone in love with popularized Zen Buddhism and self-help books that make sweeping generalizations about the differences between left and right brain functions. Most serious brain scientists are far more cautious about the supposed differences between the working of the two hemispheres.
When she moves into self-help, Taylor becomes especially incredible. She writes, "I whole-heartedly believe that 99.999 percent of the cells in my brain and body want me to be happy, healthy, and successful." (152) This is a bizarre new-age claim that hardly means anything. She goes on to talk about her ability to change the way she thinks by listening to her self-talk and how she tells her brain to act differently. She talks about congratulating her cells for the work they do and her ability to limit the negativity of her left brain by letting it talk for a certain amount of time each day and then insisting that it stop. She even talks about her activity of drawing Angel Cards several times a day.
As an account of her personal experience, My Stroke of Insight is strong. However, while she emphasizes her academic training and postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University Medical School and her association with the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center, her book would be better classified as new age self help reminiscent of Deepak Chopra. Maybe there is some truth in her claims about her insights from her stroke and her ability to control her own thoughts, beyond the basic brain science that she explains in the early chapters, but she doesn't provide any scientific backing for those startling claims.
© 2008 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.