This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

March 5, 2009 - brain scientist has a stroke of insight

Some years after earning her Ph.D. in neuroanatomy, Jill Bolte Taylor woke up one morning and ... had a stroke. A congenital malformation of the blood vessels in her brain burst, flooding the left hemisphere. She was 37 years old, and home alone at her Boston apartment. She tells the whole story in her book, "A Stroke of Insight."

First, she had some trouble with her equilibrium, and even with keeping track of the physical boundaries of her body. Sound and light were painful.

Then something even more puzzling began. The constant chatter of the left brain ceased. In fact, her whole ability to generate and process language disintegrated.

At the same time, she was almost overwhelmed by something else: an extraordinary feeling of peace, of oneness with the universe, of something she called "an expanding sense of grace."

When her left brain would switch on again, she even had this thought: "how cool! I'm a brain scientist watching myself have a stroke!"

The story of how this remarkable woman managed to get a phone call to a colleague -- when her memory, her language skills, and more were utterly on the blink -- is gripping. I'd seen a slightly different version of this on the Internet (see www.ted.com/index.php/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight.html), and found it one of the most mesmerizing speeches I've ever witnessed. You might, too.

But that story -- how she managed to call for help in the middle of a major brain trauma -- is really only the beginning of her journey. She had lost the ability to walk, talk, or eat for herself. In just a few hours, she had gone from a highly accomplished scientist to almost an infant.

What happened next, over the course of almost 8 years, was not just the recovery of the normal functioning of the human brain. Taylor in fact created a new person, and I would wager a much better one. Her observations of that process will change the way you look not only at the treatment of strokes, but at the choices you have made at the most fundamental levels of your life.

For most of us, the hemispheres of our brain grew up together, integrating almost without our knowing it. But they have specialties.

The left brain is where language lives: classification, storytelling, and according to Taylor, our whole sense of ego.

When her left brain went "offline," the right brain utterly dominated. And the right brain is all about being in the moment, about pure experience, about a childlike curiosity and openness.

This gave Taylor a unique perspective. When her left brain started to come back online -- after some persistent and patient instruction from her mother -- Taylor was able to watch how it operated.

Here's the first big insight about the left brain: it makes up stories, often outrageous, then tries to convince the rest of the brain that they're true through sheer repetition. This brain chatter, what Zen Buddhists call "monkey mind," weaves the little details of life into narratives of self. And those narratives are often surprisingly negative.

Who among us has not fallen into the spirals of destructive internal scripts? Often, these neural circuits, fortified through endless loops, were formed when we were very young.

But because Taylor was now informed by the compassionate openness of her right brain, she found that many of these circuits just ... felt bad. They literally made her sick.

Sometimes, we can't help that. Some things trigger physical responses in the brain. Fear. Fight or flight. But the actual duration of those automatic responses are brief -- about 90 seconds. After that, the brain can decide what to make of them.

So she developed techniques to interrupt the negative stories of self. She decided to be guided by the insights of her right brain.

You can't help but notice that what the right brain wants to tell us sounds a whole lot like the best teachings of world religions.

For most folks, a stroke is the devastating destruction of capacity and personhood. But ultimately, Taylor's experience is a testament to the brain's resilience -- and the potential of exerting a whole-brained choice to live far richer lives.

LaRue's Views are his own.

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