By Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, New York Times bestselling author of My Stroke of Insight
My story is ironic and really quite profound. I was a brain scientist at Harvard, teaching and performing research when a blood vessel exploded in the left hemisphere of my brain. Over the course of four hours, I watched my brain completely deteriorate in its ability to process all information. On the morning of the stroke, arterio-venous malformation (AVM), I could not walk, talk, read, write or recall any of my life. I became an infant in a woman’s body.
On the morning of the stroke, the cells in my left hemisphere became completely nonfunctional as they were swimming in a pool of blood. When my language centers went off-line, I could no longer create language with my vocal cords or understand language when others spoke to me. In the absence of language, I shifted away from my normal perception of reality. With my brain no longer communicating with me through my normal brain chatter, I shifted away from having any understanding of the external world. When my brain-chatter became silent, I shifted into the consciousness of my right hemisphere, where I experienced a deep sense of peacefulness and euphoria.
The left and right hemispheres of our brains really do process very different information in very different ways. Our left hemisphere is our ability to process language and communicate with the external world. It breaks the big picture of life into details and thinks linearly, methodically and sequentially. As a result, it is capable of understanding the past as it relates to the present, as it relates to the future. It is exceptionally capable of both judgment and critical analysis. Our right hemisphere, on the other hand, is all about the present moment and it embraces the big picture of the context of our lives. Our right hemisphere is a right here right now experience that celebrates the essence of our existence. It thinks in pictures and is the source of our gratitude, appreciation of the present moment and experience of deep inner peace.
It took eight years for me to completely recover my cognitive faculties, and during that time I learned that I really am my circuitry in my brain. I can track a target as it moves through space because I have cells that perform that function. I can move my little finger by choice, because I have cells that perform that function. If I lose those cells, then I lose the ability to perform those functions unless another group of cells learn to take over that function. Bottom line, my experience of what I am in the world is a product of the cells in my brain.
Each of those brain cells function in circuit with other cells, rendering me capable of thinking, feeling and having physiological experiences. As you know, we all have the ability to focus our minds on whatever we choose. In this moment, I can choose to think about what the last meal I had was, or I can think about how clothes feel against my skin. At the same time, I can pick and choose what emotional circuitry I want to run. I can sit here and choose to think about something that invariably triggers my anger circuitry, by simply thinking thoughts about something that predictably makes me feel anger, or I can choose to think thoughts that will trigger my sadness circuitry and voluntarily move myself to tears.
Thanks to this experience with stroke, I have learned that it only takes 90 seconds for any of my emotional circuitry to be triggered and then result in a physiological response – like a dumping of norandrenaline into my blood stream when my anger circuit is triggered. From the moment my anger circuitry is triggered, it takes literally less than 90 seconds for my physiological response to come and go. As it turns out, if I stay angry for longer than that 90 seconds of physiology, it is because I have either consciously or unconsciously chosen to rethink the thoughts that re-stimulate that emotional circuitry.
Since our neurocircuitry of what we think and feel is so predictable and under voluntary control, I encourage everyone to pay close attention to how your neurocircuitry feels inside your body so that you can learn how to observe it rather thank engage with the circuitry you don’t really want to run.
In addition, there is a portion of our language center in the left hemisphere of our brains that says “I am.” Thanks to this part of my brain, I know who I am, where I live, what my credentials are, etc. It is the home of my ego center and it is neuroanatomically about the size of a peanut. It’s also the home of that little voice that is critical of not only myself, but of others, and I have learned that this inner critic voice is not necessarily attached to my joy. Thanks to this experience with stroke, I have gained the insight that I do not have to listen to that little mean voice inside of my head, and I can make the choice as to whether or not I want to encourage it’s circuitry. This stroke of insight has been a blessing to my life in many ways, and learning that I did not have to give voice back to that negative story teller has left me experiencing much more joy in my life, much more often.
One of the other beauties of being neurocircuitry is that neurons are really quite predictable. The more often you think a thought or run the circuitry underlying a specific thought, then the less energy it takes for that circuit to run again. Eventually, if you don’t take responsibility for what circuits are running in your mind, then circuits run on automatic. I have learned that I can take total responsibility for the circuits I am running in my mind, and if there are thoughts that I don’t want to entertain, I have the ability to purposely stop thinking those thoughts by thinking about something different. I call this tending the garden of my mind, and I think it is critically important that we all spend more time tending our own gardens.
Finally, we have the power to consciously choose to focus our minds on the creation of our own physical health and well-being. I use my voice as the head-cheerleader of the fifty trillion beautiful molecular geniuses (cells) making up my form and I actively celebrate my life and health. I believe that paying attention to what you are saying to yourself as your own self talk is the first step at taking responsibility for your own mental health.
Ultimately, the mental health of our society is established one brain at a time. Consciously choosing to create a balanced brain whereby we capitalize on the gifts and skills of our two cerebral hemispheres is a great leap toward a more evolved mankind. How exciting that we are the species that is consciously capable of manifesting our own evolution. Brains are so cool.
A Phenomenal Woman