I have just finished reading My Stroke of Insight, by Jill Bolte Taylor in which she describes having and recovering from a serious stroke. I have been aware of the book and the main plot line of her remarkable story, but hadn’t realized its close tie to McGilchrist’s work. She is not mentioned in his tome, but should have been highlighted, as she is a living example of his brain model. This post is quite long, but is worth reading right to the end.
Taylor has a serious stroke involving the left-brain hemisphere that impaired her ability to walk, talk, or write. After eight years or so, she had recovered sufficiently to resume her career as a neuroanatomist and to write this book telling her experience during the event and recovery. The first remarkable feature is that she could remember the development the stroke as it progressed in great detail, but the part that intrigues me is her detailed discussion of how it affected the two sides of her brain. While McGilchrist comes to virtually the same description of the functions the two sides, based on clinical and other data, she actually lives the story.
There is little, if any, difference in the way she describes the two sides from that in The Master and His Emissary, so I won’t repeat those details here. You can find more about them in McGilchrist, my book, The Right Way to Flourish: Reconnecting with the Real World, and in many previous posts to the blog. Just search on “McGilchrist” or “brain.” But to give you the flavor of her book, here are a few excepts.
My right mind character is adventurous, celebrative of abundance, and socially adept. It is sensitive to nonverbal communication, empathic, 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. . . My right mind is open to new possibilities and thinks out of the box. It is not limited by the rules and regulations established by my left mind that created that box. Consequently, my right mind is highly creative in its willingness to try something new. It appreciates that chaos is the first step in the creative process. It is kinesthetic, agile, and loves my body’s ability to move fluidly into the world. It is tuned in to the subtle messages my cells communicate via gut feelings, and it learns through touch and experience.
Our left brain truly is one of the finest tools in the universe when it comes to organizing information. My left hemisphere personality takes pride in its ability to categorize, organize, describe, judge, and critically analyze absolutely everything. It thrives in its constant contemplation and calculation. Regardless of whether or not my mouth is running, my left mind stays busy theorizing, rationalizing, and memorizing. It is a perfectionist and an amazing housekeeper of corporation or home. It constantly says, “Everything has a place and everything belongs in its place.” Our right mind character values humanity, while our left mind character concerns itself with finances and economy. . . One of the most prominent characteristics of our left brain is its ability to weave stories. This story-teller portion of our left mind’s language center is specifically designed to make sense of the world outside of us, based upon minimal amounts of information. It functions by taking whatever details it has to work with, and then weaves them together in the form of a story. Most impressively, our left brain is brilliant in its ability to make stuff up, and fill in the blanks when there are gaps in its factual data. In addition, during its process of generating a story line, our left mind is quite the genius in its ability to manufacture alternative scenarios [lies]. And if it’s a subject you really feel passionate about, either good or awful, it’s particularly effective at hooking into those circuits of emotion and exhausting all the “what if” possibilities.
I found her description of what she was sensing particularly interesting, especially the sense of having the boundaries between her “self” and the world dissolve. A feeling that comes very close to what I think McGilchrist means by “betweenness.” Again, her words:
When I lost my left hemisphere and its language centers, I also lost the clock that would break my moments into consecutive brief instances. Instead of having my moments prematurely stunted, they became open-ended, and I felt no rush to do anything. Like walking along the beach, or just hanging out in the beauty of nature, I shifted from the doing-consciousness of my left brain to the being-consciousness of my right brain. I morphed from feeling small and isolated to feeling enormous and expansive. I stopped thinking in language and shifted to taking new pictures of what was going on in the present moment. I was not capable of deliberating about past or future-related ideas because those cells were incapacitated. All I could perceive was right here, right now, and it was beautiful.
My entire self-concept shifted as I no longer perceived myself as a single, a solid, an entity with boundaries that separated me from the entities around me. . . My left hemisphere had been trained to perceive myself as a solid, separate from others. Now, released from that restrictive circuitry, my right hemisphere relished in its attachment to the eternal flow. I was no longer isolated and alone. My soul was as big as the universe and frolicked with glee in a boundless sea. . . I imagined the world filled with happy and peaceful people and I became motivated to endure the agony I would have to face in the name of recovery. My stroke of insight would be: peace is only a thought away, and all we have to do to access it is silence the voice of our dominating left mind.
The last sentence pretty much summarizes my own work in The Right Way to Flourish: Reconnecting with the Real World. In place of “peace,” I would write, “flourishing.” Otherwise, her message is very close to mine. The big and important difference is that she has actually lived her words. I have, rather, invented them, using my right-brain, by applying the work of others. I have been able to find much peace, even in a troubled world, although that has been difficult lately. Most of all, however, I do think I am flourishing, amid family and friends.
Image: Jill Taylor