How experiencing a stroke helped a neuroanatomist understand reality and connectedness

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Most people would not see having a stroke as exciting. But most people aren’t Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard-trained neuroanatomist, New York Times bestselling author and viral TED Talk speaker.

As a medical professional, brains are her obsession – and there’s nothing dry or clinical in the way she describes them. Instead, her outlook on the complex organ is almost poetic, and she views consciousness as not just a cognitive process but as a beautiful connection to the universe.

We sat down with Dr. Jill to discover how brains operate, how she recovered from a near-death experience and how we can begin to understand (and control) what’s really going on in there.

The fascination begins

Why did the Kentucky-born Dr. Jill research the brain out of all the human organs? Like many of us, her career was inspired by family. “I grew up to study the brain because I have a brother who’s been diagnosed with schizophrenia,” says Dr. Jill, who noticed early on in life that she and her sibling perceived the world very differently. “My focus is how does our brain create our perception of reality.” 

Her extensive research in neuroanatomy led her to reveal the truth behind a popular myth: our emotional and logical hemispheres are not as simple as black and white (or left and right). Both hemispheres actually possess one logical region and one emotional region.

The left-thinking region deals with logic, structure and organization, while also being responsible for our sense of self. The left-emotional side gives us the ability to mentally time travel: to position our sense of self within past traumas and triumphs, as well as future situations. 

Similarly, our right-emotional side deals with time but only in the present. Finally, our right-thinking region takes our present situation and expands it to the world around us. It shows us how surreal it is to exist in this moment, here and now.

Studying her own brain

One December morning in 1996, Dr. Jill’s life and perception of reality changed forever. “My right arm was paralyzed, a warning sign of stroke,” she remembers. “My brain said, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m having a stroke. I’m having a stroke!’ And then another part of my brain said, ‘Wow, this is so cool. I’m having a stroke!’”

Caught between the panic of a medical emergency and the rare opportunity of researching her brain during a stroke, Dr. Jill oscillated between the two hemispheres as she dipped in and out of consciousness on her way to the hospital.

Dr. Jill woke up four hours later. The only problem was, it wasn’t really her who woke up. “The left hemisphere was completely shut down. I didn’t know where I began and where I ended,” she says. “Jill Bolte Taylor died that day.”

During this difficult time, Dr. Jill had an epiphany after being flooded with intense emotion. With only her right hemisphere online, she could only experience a surreal feeling of interconnectedness. While most modern Western cultures are preoccupied with who we are against other people, she concluded that we should instead focus on who we are in relation to other people and recognize how amazing it is to be present with everyone else in this same moment.

Taking control of your brain

It took a major hemorrhage (which took eight years to recover from) for Dr. Jill to achieve this outlook, but she says now it’s as simple as keeping an open mind and knowing when to press play and when to press pause. For example, in tense situations, it can be beneficial to take the time to figure out if our left-thinking hemisphere is working alone; making us unnecessarily retaliatory towards someone else. 

According to Dr. Jill, there are “four yous” that live within us. The key to understanding these individual personalities is learning to take a breath and figure out which “you” is at the control panel. 

“When we get that streamlined activity between the two thinking parts of our brain and the two emotional parts of our brain, the world becomes healthier,” she says.

We spoke to Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor for The Science of Perception Box, a Big Think interview series created in partnership with Unlikely Collaborators. As a creative non-profit organization, they’re on a mission to help people challenge their perceptions and expand their thinking. This series dives into the science behind our thought patterns. Watch Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s full interview above, and visit Perception Box to see more in this series.

This video How experiencing a stroke helped a neuroanatomist understand reality and connectedness is featured on Big Think.

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