Thursday, June 26, 2008
Stroke of Insight
A kindergarten teacher on summer vacation has more time (and energy) to read than he does during the school year. Funny how 27 kids can make me want to collapse at the end of the day! In April and May I jot down a list of books to read during the long days of summer when it’s possible to find an hour or two to spend with a book.
Books about how human beings work are of particular interest to me. (Pure fiction, while as entertaining to me as the next person, leaves a lingering taste of guilty pleasure. I know that's not fair: a good novel can be as true and as informative about the human spirit as nonfiction.) But, as I was saying, as a teacher of young children I want to learn how the brain/heart/mind works. My STROKE of INSIGHT, Jill Bolte Taylor’s account of her cerebral hemorrhage, seemed like a good candidate for my summer reading list. Several of you readers suggested that I would like it. You were right.
Taylor begins by telling us a little about herself before she had the stroke. We learn how she trained to become a brain scientist and a little about the work she did at Harvard University where she was employed when the stroke occurred.
In the next part of the book she succinctly explains the basics of brain anatomy so that we can follow the story she’s about to tell. (The clarity of her description of how the brain is organized is worth the price of the book.)
By Chapter 4, she begins the tale of her stroke. She is well qualified to observe and describe the stroke she had: she was a neuroanatomist, a brain scientist. She describes the morning of the stroke from the first symptom—a first sharp stab of pain behind her left eye—to later that day and near death in the Massachusetts General Hospital emergency room in fascinating detail and harrowing effect. Few books have given me such strong paradoxical urges to simultaneously (1) set it down and (2) keep reading.
She lives, obviously. And then she takes her 8-year long journey to recovery. She has to recover her life from infancy to adulthood. Along the way she discovers a new appreciation for the right brain—exactly the part of the brain that No Child Left Behind reforms are leaving behind. Taylor feels that her stroke was a gift because it has helped her live a more fully integrated life using both her left and right hemispheres. She trusts her right brain to guide her:
“Since the stroke, I steer my life almost entirely by paying attention to how people, places, and things feel to me energetically. In order to hear the intuitive wisdom of my right mind, however, I must consciously slow my left mind down so I am not simply carried along on the current of my chatty story-teller. Intuitively I don’t question why I am subconsciously attracted to some people and situations, and yet repelled by others. I simply listen to my body and implicitly trust my instincts.”
Taylor tells how a well-meaning people sometimes inadvertently made matters worse for her. In the Appendix, Taylor lists 40 things caregivers can do to help someone who has suffered a stroke.
If you know someone who’s suffered a stroke the list would itself be worth the price of the book.
There is a child-like quality of innocence and wonder in Taylor’s personality—a balance of left and right brain that you don’t commonly see in adults these days. She knows the primacy of love and heart wisdom and she knows the importance of staying in the moment.
If she wanted to give up brain science for another job, she’d make a fantastic kindergarten teacher.