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Book Commentary: My Stroke of Insight

ryan g's picture


My Stroke of Insightwas written by a neuroscientist, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, who was a successfuland active member of the neurological research community.  She was a huge proponent of the HarvardBrain Bank and had gained minor fame for her jingle, which provided a light-heartedway to request brain donations for the brain bank.  Dr. Bolte Taylor was also heavily involved in NAMI, theNational Association for the Mentally Ill.  In the prime of her life and her career she suffered astroke in the left hemisphere of her brain.


            As the title suggests, Dr. Bolte Taylor not only survives the stroke, but she makesa full recovery and goes on to relate her experiences both of the stroke itselfand the treatment and recovery process in her book.  What results is a fascinating and subjective look into themental processes that take place during a stroke and the subsequent recoveryperiod.  As a student completing acourse on the brain and mental health, two themes emerge in my mind as memorableand beneficial to continual development of a story.  The first is the dichotomy that she draws between the leftand right brain hemispheres.  Thesecond is the insight that Dr. Bolte Taylor provides into what was constructiveand unconstructive to her healing process.  

            Oneof the most noticeable themes in the book was the distinction that the authordraws between the right and left hemispheres of the brain.  It is often surprising how twoseemingly symmetrical objects can have such different functions in contributingto our mental experience of reality. Dr. Bolte Taylor outlines this dichotomy in the beginning of the bookand develops it throughout. 

Many people are probably familiar with the notion thatthe right brain is our more creative, free-spirited side, and the left brain isresponsible for logical analytic thinking.  According to the author, the functions of the hemispheresare not too far from this pop-psychology depiction.  The right brain is the seat of connection with the universeand all things that are infinite. It is capable of extrasensory perception and serves to facilitate ourexperience of the divine.  The leftbrain on the other hand is responsible for many of the cognitive and logicalprocesses that we experience as a part of everyday life.  For example, the author assigns theresponsibility of doing math and reading to the left side of the brain. 

Dr. Bolte Taylor supports her argument about thefunctions of the hemispheres by presenting her own experiences.  The stroke was in the left hemisphereof her brain, so she lost many of her cognitive capabilities including theability to read, write, complete math problems, and speak.  Because of the destruction of the lefthemisphere, the right side of Dr. Bolte Taylor’s brain took over as thedominant hemisphere.  The experiencesthat she relates during her decline are extremely reminiscent of divineexperiences described by individuals in many different spiritualtraditions. 

It is worth noting that there are other resources thatsupport the conclusions that Dr. Bolte Taylor draws about structure andfunction relationships.  First,Broca’s area and Wernike’s area, the language areas of the brain, are both onthe left side of the brain.  Also,recent research by Dr. Michael Persinger shows that the area of our brain thatis responsible for divine experiences may be on the right side of thebrain. 

            Theduality between left and right brain is particularly interesting consideringour exploration and development of the bipartite brain model.  Both models compartmentalize the braininto two general sections.  In Dr.Bolte Taylor’s model, the brain is split into the right and left side.  In the bipartite model, the brain issplit into a storyteller and a tacit knowledge.  In the bipartite brain model, the storyteller is responsiblefor conscious planning, decisions making, and confabulation.  This description overlaps quite a bitwith the function and responsibility assigned to the left brain of Dr. BolteTaylor’s model.  The tacitknowledge of the bipartite brain model is responsible for the unconsciousunderstanding and assimilation of information.  It is separate and independent from conscious thought.  Again, this overlaps with Dr. BolteTaylor’s model of the right brain. 

            Thedifferences between the two models provide interesting insights into ways thatwe may be able to update our model of the bipartite brain.  First, in the bipartite brain model, weassigned the majority of the brain to the tacit knowledge.  The storyteller, by comparison was asmall portion of the overall model of the brain.  In Dr. Bolte Taylor’s model, both sides are symmetrical andequal in size.  Following fromthis, another difference between the bipartite brain model and the right-leftmodel is the connection to anatomical structures.  The right-left model allows for a connection betweenanatomical structures, which may be useful in treatment strategies. 

Both models provide advantages and disadvantages.  Perhaps each can add to the other toprovide an overall less wrong model. For example, it is interesting to consider the ability to experience thedivine.  In the bipartite brainmodel, this was never discussed.  Aless wrong model might include the ability to experience the divine as one ofthe functions of the tacit knowledge.

The other part of Dr. Bolte Taylor’s book that I foundto be very interesting and relevant was the commentary on treatment for strokepatients.  The degree ofconsciousness that Dr. Bolte Taylor recounted during her recovery experiencemight come as a surprise to many healthcare providers.  Although she was unable to respond, shewas very aware of how she was treated. She often described her interactions with nurses and physicians in termsof energies, which gives more insight into the function and communicationabilities of the right brain. Also, in the end of the book, she presents an appendix which outlinesall the factors that she believed helped her heal.  In general, she revealed that she needed patience and beliefin her ability to heal.  Also, onething she was quite passionate about was her ability to sleep as much as shewanted.  This is contraindicated inthe normal treatment strategy for stroke patients.     

On a personal level, I found this book interesting fortwo reasons.  First, because of thespiritual connections that she draws to the brain.  I think that Dr. Bolte Taylor’s experience supports theargument that I made in my previous paper on the nature of religiousexperience.  That is, evidencesupports the notion that there is a part of the brain that is responsible forcreating spritual experiences.  Second,I was very interested by the commentary on brain plasticity and theimplications for a patient’s potential to recover.  I don’t think many people expected Dr. Bolte Taylor to beable to speak or be independently mobile, let alone write and publish abook.  During the semester, I feltthat we failed to reach an overarching conclusion on the treatment of mentalhealth. In this book, many helpful suggestions are provided not only about thetreatment of stroke patients, but any mental health patient.  Adopting patience and belief in thepatient’s potential to recover as a starting point for treatment would serveany healthcare provider well.    




Paul Grobstein's picture

Hemispheric asymmetry compared to the bipartite brain

Interesting/helpful contrasting of the two hemisphere in comparison to the bipartite brain approach. Yes, we didn't have any explicit discussion of the latter vis a vis spiritual experience but I share you sense this is largely a function of tacit knowledge (the "cognitive unconscious"). See, for example, The significance of the story teller for further thinking about the I-function (toward the end at this link).

Let me add to the comparison that the bipartite brain model emphasizes not a cognitive unconscious "separate and independent from conscious thought" but rather one that undergirds conscious thought and is in turn influenced by conscious thought. It is a serial model rather than a parallel one, as is the two hemisphere model (which, to some extent, maintains a separate but equal concept of feeling and thought).