Feb. 24 2010 12:00 AM

Stroke of bad luck brought epiphany for neuroscientist

It’s one thing to study the brain in an academic setting. It’s quite another to learn about its inner workings when you’re in the midst of your own medical crisis.

Jill Bolte Taylor grew up with a brother who was diagnosed as schizophrenic; her interest in trying to understand his condition led her to a career as a neuroanatomist, mapping the microcircuitry of the human brain and studying its intricacies. But in 1996, at the age of 37, Taylor awakened one morning to find herself in the midst of a nightmare.

“As soon as I sat up, I had a pulsating feeling behind my left eye,” Taylor said in a brief phone interview minutes before she was scheduled to get on a plane to her home in Bloomington, Ind. “In the next few hours, I watched my mind completely deteriorate through the eyes of a scientist. By that afternoon, I could not walk, talk, read, speak or recall any of my life.”

Taylor had suffered a massive stroke. In a presentation taped for the Web site TED.com, Taylor says of the incident, “I essentially became an infant in a woman’s body.”

A few weeks later, she would undergo surgery to have “a blood clot the size of a golf ball taken out of my (brain’s) left hemisphere,” she said. That did not, however, provide a sudden miracle cure.

“I had to learn to walk and talk from scratch, and I had to relearn all my science,” Taylor said.

In the days after the stroke, Taylor couldn’t learn anything — she was spending most of her time asleep.

“I would sleep for 12 hours and be awake for about 20 min Taylor "Stroke of Brain Scientist’s Personal she said. “Then it shifted to a six-hour cycle. Eventually, I was awake for 30 or 40 minutes.”

Taylor, who has written about her recovery in “Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey,” will speak at 7:30 p.m. Monday, March 1, at the Wharton Center.

In many cases, Taylor said, the post-stroke treatment would involve keeping the patient awake and alert, but her doctors chose to allow her brain “to sleep as much as was needed. It was totally exhausted and could not make sense of anything.”

The sleep proved to be “filing and organizational time” for her brain, she said, “and that was equally as important as being awake.”

It also became clear to Taylor’s mother — a former college mathematician — that Taylor couldn’t do much of anything without plenty of rest. “If she did wake me, I was not cooperative, not willing to learn,” Taylor said. “She learned quickly if she wanted to get any effort out of me she would have to wait until I was ready to wake up.”

As she began staying awake for longer periods, Taylor started to realize the left side of her brain — the section devoted to organizing, categorizing and making judgments — was no longer performing those duties. Instead, Taylor’s thought processes were now dominated by the right brain, giving her a feeling of being “at one with the universe,” she says on her Web site.

In her TED.com talk, Taylor offers this analysis: “Our right hemisphere is all about this present moment. It’s all about right here, right now. Our right hemisphere, it thinks in pictures and it learns kinesthetically through the movement of our bodies.

Information, in the form of energy, streams in simultaneously through all of our sensory systems. And then it explodes into this enormous collage of what this present moment looks like. What this present moment smells like and tastes like, what it feels like and what it sounds like.

“I am an energy being connected to the energy all around me through the consciousness of my right hemisphere. We are energy beings connected to one another through the consciousness of our right hemispheres as one human family.”

Within eight years, Taylor would make a complete recovery from her stroke. But the spiritual insight would stay with her.

“I realized that the blessing I had received from this experience was the knowledge that deep internal peace is accessible to anyone at any time,” she writes in “My Stroke of Insight.” “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.”

Jill Bolte Taylor

7:30nMonday, March 1 Great Hall Cobb Great Wharton $20 (800) WHARTON www.whartoncenter.com