Mental Health · Mindfulness

Book Review: My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor. How our brain shapes our reality

Having been a practitioner of mindfulness and meditation on a spiritual level, I recently have become increasingly interested in the neurological and scientific aspects of mindfulness. Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight is a fascinating glance into the neuroanatomist’s personal experience of having a stroke which resulted in a conscious dual reality of being in the Now with her brain’s intuitive right hemisphere and the highly logical awareness of her left hemisphere.

A central fact within the book is regarding the processing of information by our left and right hemispheres and how varying amounts of utilisation of each parts of our brain essentially can affect our reality. For example, our left brain is highly logical and structured, possesses the ability to put items in order such as the concepts of time (past, present and future) and hosts our language centres. Meanwhile, our right hemisphere hosts our creativity, imagination and intuition with no concept of time or ego in its own entity.

Near the start of the book, Bolte Taylor imparts that her brother suffers from schizophrenia. She placed forward the statement: “I wondered how it could be possible that my brother and I could share the experience but walk away from the situation with completely different interpretations about what had just happened. This difference in perception, information processing, and output motivated me to become a brain scientist” [Bolte Taylor, 2008, P5]. What I found particularly interesting about this statement is how each of our perceptions and information processing can affect our output, and ultimately our reality. When healthy, both sides of the brain simultaneously function as we go about our daily life. They work together to help produce our actions and responses. But as stated by Bolte Taylor, we can all approach the same situation but walk away with an entirely different view. Reality in the casual sense ceases to exist; our perceptions are our personal reality.

My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor

So what happens when someone suffers a stroke? In Bolte Taylor’s case, she suffered an Arteriovenous Malformation [AVM], whereby arteries push blood straight to veins, bypassing other brain tissue. This results in too high pressure being pushed to the veins, causing severe bleeding. The AVM rendered a large part of Bolte Taylor’s left hemisphere impaired. This meant her language faculties had shut down and she was limited in her ability to identify with the concept of self and ego. Bolte Taylor states that as her right hemisphere became dominant, she felt a sense of fluidity, being at one with the universe rather than a solid and separate being from others and her surroundings.

With the left hemisphere being the language centre of our brains, there is also a tendency for it to be a storyteller, creating drama and trauma [Bolte Taylor, 2008, P143-144]. With this no longer in play, Bolte Taylor was able to find a deep sense of peace and likened it to the practices of meditation and reaching Enlightenment.

Having since recovered from her stroke, a key point that Bolte Taylor reflected upon with regards to our individual realities is that through the use of certain areas of our brain, we enter a ‘seek and ye shall find’ mode. This is where we each place focus on certain things, causing us to notice them more. It made me think about the broad categorisations of optimist, realist and pessimist. If each of these groups of people approached the same situation, they would walk away from it with entirely different outcomes. Over time, the continuous choices each of us make based on our forms of bias can take us far away from the initial situation we began with.

A useful learning that I feel can be taken from Bolte Taylor’s experience is in response to her statement: “Many of us make judgments with our left hemisphere and then are not willing to step to the right for a file update. For many of us, once we have made a decision, then we are attached to that decision forever.” As a person focused on cultivating peace within ourselves and promoting peace as far and wide as possible, I feel it is exceptionally important for us to challenge our behaviours and beliefs. When we feel what we often consider negative feelings such as sadness or anger and act upon such emotions, this can be destructive. Whilst we should not suppress our feelings, we should take note of whether we are feeling or acting based on an internal bias. Almost always, whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’, most of our feelings are conditioned. One personal example that comes to mind is when my family from Asia would comment that I’d become ‘fatter/fat’. To an individual brought up in Britain, I found myself feeling defensive and that the comment was bad. But to my family in Asia, putting on some weight was a sign of good health and a compliment. So in some aspects, our environment and cultures or subcultures frame our natural responses. We need to remain vigilant of each situation, no matter how similar it may seem to a previous situation, to reduce our biases and cultivate a sense of wholeness of being. In that way, we can reduce our fixed judgments, increase our mental agility and broaden our knowledge, experiences and acceptance.

Finally, Bolte Taylor states that with regards to our fear in life, which can hold us back, in reality fear is “False Expectations Appearing Real” [Bolte Taylor, 2008, P173]. Essentially, again there is an emphasis that our reality is in fact pure perception. It reminded me of a statement written on the whiteboard one morning at Marylebone station, London: “Fear has two meanings: Forget Everything And Run, Face Everything and Rise”. My main takeaway from Bolte Taylor’s experience is that whst we may be biologically programmed to react in certain ways, we should open our awareness and make the most of every opportunity open to us, not letting our fears or biases hold us back. In that way, we will live the most fulfilling life available to us.

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You can buy Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight on Amazon

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