In 1996, at 37 years of age, neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor experienced something both devastating and insightful at the same time—she had a stroke.
When her brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia, Taylor decided to devote her professional life to brain research. She worked in a lab at Harvard, mapping activity in various parts of the human brain. One day she woke up with a searing pain behind her left eye. During her morning workout, when she started having distorted views of her own body, Taylor realized she was having a stroke.
“I thought: wow; what a great opportunity for a neuroanatomist—to be able to study the effects of a stroke as it’s happening in your own body!”
Taylor struggled to remember the course of events as they unfolded. Initially, she experienced a sense of euphoria. “I was at total peace with the universe,” Taylor explains in a recent video clip. She realized that her right brain—the creative hemisphere that functions in the here and now—had taken over. “I was unbelievably happy without a care in the world,” she says. Then suddenly her left brain—the calculating rational hemisphere—kicked in and reported: “Hey, you’re having a stroke here—you’ve got to get some help!”
By the time she got to the phone, she could no longer use her right arm. When she looked at the cards in her address book, she couldn’t read the numbers—the only things she saw were pixels. After forty-five minutes she located the contact she was searching for, but she couldn’t remember the digits as she struggled to dial the number. Finally, she threw her right hand across her torso and used the index finger to cover each digit as she dialed the number with her left hand.
“Someone picks up on the other end of the line, and I tell them it’s me; I’m having a stroke and I need help,” Taylor says. “But the words come out sounding like a golden retriever barking.” At that point she realized that the stroke had knocked out the speech center in her left brain—she could no longer communicate with the outside world.
They traced the call, got an ambulance to the scene and took her to the hospital. En route Taylor said goodbye to the world. “I was totally helpless at that point. I knew I couldn’t save myself. It was up to the doctors to salvage what they could.” When she woke up several hours later in the ICU, she was astonished to find that she was still alive.
Although it took eight years, Jill Bolte Taylor has fully recovered from the residual effects of her stroke. Now she spends her time speaking about her experience. “At one point during my euphoria, I felt one with the universe, one with all of my fellow human beings. It was absolute joy and peace. If you experienced a vision like that, wouldn’t you want to share it with others?”