Imagine spending your entire adult life studying the brain because you wanted to help your sibling. That level of determination is exactly what made author, Jill Bolte Taylor, pursue neuroanatomy. You see, Bolte Taylor’s brother had schizophrenia. They were very close in age but the way he processed information was so different to others. She set out to study as much as she could in order to understand schizophrenia.
Bolte Taylor’s studies led her to receive her PhD and later on to become a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard Medical School. Her work on the human brain was relentless and then, at 37 years of age, something tragic happened. Bolte Taylor had a stroke. But ever the scientist, the stroke did not stop Bolte Taylor, it only led her to more discoveries about the human brain.
In this book summary readers will discover:
- The two types of stroke
- How the two cerebral hemispheres complement each other
- What happened to Bolte Taylor when she had her stroke
- Bolte Taylor’s road to recovery
- The epiphanies that Bolte Taylor had after her stroke
Key lesson one: The two types of stroke
Most people are not aware that there are two different types of strokes. The first is called an ischemic stroke and occurs when there are blood clots in an artery. The clots prevent the normal flow of oxygen, which is carried by the blood, to the brain. Thus, the brain is deprived of oxygen and can either be damaged or can lead to death.
The second type of stroke is hemorrhagic and happens when an artery bursts and blood surrounds the brain. Normally, blood is pumped by the heart and into the brain via arteries and leaves through the veins. However, during a stroke, the blood is pumped at such a high pressure through the arteries, the veins are unable to withstand the pressure. This is why humans have a capillary bed that lowers the pressure and acts as a buffer between arteries and veins.
There are some individuals, like Bolte Taylor, who are born with arteriovenous malformation. This is a condition that sees individuals having a malformed capillary bed. Thus there are no buffers between the arteries and veins resulting in blood entering these veins at high pressure causing them to burst. The blood floods the brain and comes into direct contact with the neurons in the brain that results in damage.
Key lesson two: How the two cerebral hemispheres complement each other
To understand how a stroke causes damage, you have to first understand how the two hemispheres of the brain work. The right hemisphere is responsible for all sensory components. These are hearing, taste and smell. In this hemisphere, senses are combined with your thoughts and form a picture of what’s happening in your surroundings. The right hemisphere is concerned with the present. It has no ways of remembering the past and is not worried about the future. Naturally, this is where intuitive and creative thinking occurs.
The left hemisphere of the brain concerns itself with language, numbers, patterns and categories. This is the part of the brain where logic and reasoning reside. It gives you the concept of time and thus you can understand the past, present and future. The left hemisphere is the part that allows you to follow through on your actions logically. Therefore, you know you need to put your socks on before your shoes.
The two hemispheres may have different responsibilities but that does not mean that they work separately. They actually work together for us to function as a whole. They piece together information to create our perception of reality. Take a simple conversation as an example. The right hemisphere receives the words and facial expressions of the person speaking whilst the left hemisphere gives us the meaning of the words along with the understanding of the sentences. If your right hemisphere were damaged in any way, you would not be able to process nonverbal cues like facial expressions.
Thus, the two hemispheres play an integral role in our daily lives. Depending on which side of the brain is affected by a stroke, the implications will vary.
Key lesson three: What happened to Bolte Taylor when she had her stroke
When Bolte Taylor woke up to a terrible headache behind her left eye, she decided that the best way to get rid of it would be to exercise. As she continued going through her morning she began to feel progressively worse. She described it as a disconnection from her surroundings and herself. Bolte Taylor became overly sensitive to light and eventually fell into a sort of limbo where she felt she was watching her life rather than being a part of it.
As time passed, her physical abilities disintegrated. She tried to get herself to shower but found her movements shaky and she had to push herself to concentrate on her movements. Eventually, she found herself leaning on the wall for support whilst struggling with her awareness of her surroundings. She described it as drifting between consciousness and a state of bliss.
Bolte Taylor started to lose her comprehension of what was happening. She kept getting short bursts of awareness but began to struggle to remember who she was and lost her ability to speak. But what confused her is that she also felt a sense of tranquillity as not other thoughts crossed her mind. In one of those brief moments of awareness, she realised that she was in danger and needed to get help. She made it to her phone and called one of her colleagues but was unable to speak clearly at this point. Luckily, her colleague understood what was happening and hurried to get to her in order to take her to a hospital.
Key lesson four: Bolte Taylor’s road to recovery
When Bolte Taylor made it to the hospital, her angiogram results showed that she had suffered a hemorrhagic stroke in her left hemisphere caused by arteriovenous malformation. She was unaware that she had this condition. Her neurosurgeons suggested a craniotomy to remove what was left of the clot as well as her arteriovenous malformation. The clot alone was the size of a golf ball. Their concern was that if they did not remove it, Bolte Taylor would likely experience further haemorrhages.
On her part, Bolte Taylor was hesitant to go through with such an invasive procedure. She was exhausted after the entire ordeal and the idea of trying to recover from surgery seriously troubled her. However, being a neuroanatomist, she understood the implications of not going through with it as well. She agreed to the craniotomy and worked hard to get herself ready for the surgery. In her case, she was lucky. Only a few days after her stroke she was able to stand up and sit down with some support from those around her. A few weeks later she can move from lying down and into a seated position on her own. However, this had to be done in a series of small movements and not all at once.
Five days after her stroke, Bolte Taylor was allowed to go home to recover in order to be strong enough for her surgery. Her mother stayed with her in the months that followed to help her. She had to earn how to read, talk, write and walk all over again. Her mother was the right person for this task as she had been through it with her the first time around when she was a child. Bolte Taylor found that recovery was slow and exhausting. Even though she had reimagined her ability to walk, it used up a lot of her energy. After learning how to walk, she began to work with puzzles and in the process rediscovered colours. Reading proved to be the hardest part of her recovery. Bolte Taylor describes her inability to recognise letters and how they were just squiggles to which she had to put sounds.
It took a lot of time but Bolte Taylor was determined to get her physical and mental strength back in order for her to go through with her surgery.
Key lesson five: The epiphanies that Bolte Taylor had after her stroke
Bolte Taylor’s surgery went through successfully. With the clot removed, she could thereafter think clearly and was no longer separated from reality. During her recovery from the surgery, she had two epiphanies regarding her stroke.
The first was that she was incredibly lucky to be surrounded by people who believe in her recovery. She had heard many medical professionals say that stroke survivors never recover fully. It demotivated her at first but as she worked hard to recover she proved them wrong. Bolte Taylor studied the human brain for much of her adult life, she believed in its plasticity and ability to change its neural connections when stimulated. In addition, if the people closest to her started to treat her as no longer intelligent or capable of recovery, she may have lacked the motivation to get back to her old self.
The second epiphany was related to the peace she experienced as a result of her stroke. As Bolte Taylor had suffered a stroke in her left hemisphere, only the right hemisphere was functioning. Because of this, she experienced a tranquillity that allowed her to be one with the universe. She was no longer concerned with the past or future and firmly rooted in the present. Much like the concept of nirvana in Buddhism. Throughout her recovery, Bolte Taylor was motivated by this as she wanted to share her experiences with others.
The key takeaway from My Stroke of Insight is:
There are many stories of people who have strokes and fail to recover fully, possibly even being a shell of their former selves. Understanding how the brain works and why strokes occur is important. Recovery is possible if you work diligently at it. It is not an easy journey but having the right people around you is just as important as not giving up.
How can I implement the lessons learned in My Stroke of Insight:
Sometimes, perseverance is key. No matter the situation, you have to believe in yourself and have patience. Having people around you that support you will motivate you and keep you on track. You just have to keep at it until you achieve your goals.