Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s website:

Transcript of Jill Taylor’s talk at TED:

Chris Anderson introduces Jill Bolte Taylor by telling us that his mother recently had a stroke. In 30 seconds, he tells us, she was “turned into someone entirely different – a mystery.” Bolte Taylor is in a unique place to decipher this mystery for us. She’s a research psychiatrist at Harvard, with a specialty in brain chemistry. And she’s recovered from a massive stroke, which taught her amazing lessons about how the brain works.

She decided to study the brain because she grew up with a brother who suffered from schizophrenia. Why, she wondered, could she take her dreams and connect them to her reality and make them come true, and why can’t her brother connect his dreams to a common and shared reality? Why instead do they become delusions? At Harvard, she was studying the biological and chemical differences between the brains of people who were normal, schizophrenia, schizoaffective and who had bipolar disorder. On the weekends, she travelled as an advoate for NAMI – National Advocates for Mental Illness.

On December 10, 1996, “I woke up with a brain disorder of my own.” She suffered a massive hemmorhage in her left cerebral cortex. By the end of the day, she couldn’t walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life. She’s brought in a human brain to show us. “It’s obvious that the two hemispheres are completely separate from one another…The right hemisphere functions as parallel processor, the left functions as a serial processor.” While they’re connected by the corpus callosum, they operate to a great deal independently from one another.


To the right hemisphere, the world is a wash of sensations. “We are energy beings connected to energy of each other through the consciousness of the right hemispheres. In this moment, we are perfect, we are whole, and we are beautiful.”

The left hemisphere is a different place, all about the past and the future. Its job is to pick out the details from those waves of sensation and to categorize and organize all that information. It thinks in language, “ongoing brain chatter that connects internal and external world.”

Bolte Taylor woke up that morning with acute pain, like eating ice cream. She tried to start her daily ritual, exercising on a cario machine. But she percieved her hands as claws, and felt a weird feeling of externalization. She began slowing down, sensing constriction in her area of perception. As she tried to get into the shower, she could hear the dialog inside her body: “Okay, you muscles contract, you muscles relax.” As the water turned on, she discovered she could no longer define the boundaries of her body. “The atoms and molecules of my arm blended with the atoms of the wall. All I can detect is this energy.” And for a moment, that left hemisphere brain chatter went totally silent/

“I was totally shocked inside a silent mind, captivated by the energy around me.” It was a liberating experience, leaving all the cares of daily life behind. “I felt enormous, expansive, at one with all the energy. It was beautiful there.” And then her left hemisphere came back online, yelling, “We got a problem here!”

As she realized she was having a stroke, one of her first thoughts was, “This is so cool! How many brain scientists have a stroke?” That thought was rapidly followed by, “But I’m a busy woman. I can’t afford to deal with this than longer than a couple of weeks.” She realized how serious things were when she discovered she no longer knew her workplace number. She shuffled through a huge stack of business cards, hoping to find her own card. But the letters were no more than squiggles, and she wasted 45 minutes, during which her brain was bleeding, trying to find the right squiggle to dial. When she finally connected, she couldn’t understand human speech – “My colleague sounded like a golden retriever.” She hadn’t realized she couldn’t understand until she’d attempted to speak. As the ambulance took her to the hospital, she remembers realizing, “I am no longer the choreographer of my actions,” and surrendering, perhaps to life post-stroke, perhaps to death.

After she emerged from coma, “light burned my brain like wildfire.” Noise was painful, and she couldn’t pick sounds from the noise. But she found the expansive feeling again, that moment of connection to the rest of the world, a feeling that felt like nirvana. “If I am alive and could find nirvana, then anyone could find nirvana. People could purposely choose to step to the right of their left hemispheres. What a gift this experience could be!”

It was a gift with a huge cost. Two and a half weeks after the stroke, a surgeon removed a blood clot the size of a golf ball from her brain. It took her eight years to recover completely. She asks, “Who are we? We are the life force power of the universe, with manual dexterity and two cognitive minds… We have the power moment to moment to choose how we want to be in the world,” whether we want to be purely rational or live within our right brains. “The more time we spend on the right brain, the peace circutry of our brains, the more peace we will see in the world.” Tears in her eyes, she concludes, “I thought that was an idea worht spreading.”

By Kim Zetter , Wired.com

cap001.pngOne 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. (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design.)

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.