My stroke of insight
Recommended by David Baron
One of the most extraordinary gifts of the human brain is the ability to think about how it thinks — to observe itself in action. Rarely has any brain been in a better position to do this than the one belonging to neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor. On December 10, 1996, Taylor experienced a massive cerebral hemorrhage, and in her classic TED Talk, “My stroke of insight,” she shares what it was like from the inside.
Although I’ve never suffered a stroke and hope that I never will, Taylor’s talk has changed how I think about the workings of my own mind. As a science writer, I spend most days in my left brain — where logic, linearity and a sense of self dominate. Taylor encourages us to live more in the other hemisphere, the right brain, which is where her consciousness shifted during her stroke. She describes it as a place of beauty and peace and connectedness, where the boundary between the self and the universe dissolves. She calls this state of mind “La La Land,” and as she revisits that mental landscape in her talk, you can see her face soften. It’s a remarkable transformation.
For me, watching Taylor’s talk was a revelation. I knew immediately what she was describing because I had experienced that feeling myself. It came years ago when I witnessed a total solar eclipse, a sight so unfathomable that it overwhelmed the logic circuits in my head and left me gasping for words. It was one of the most glorious and meaningful moments of my life, but until I saw Taylor’s talk, I was baffled by what had happened inside my skull. Did I undergo a spiritual awakening? Had I encountered God? I came to realize that the eclipse pushed my consciousness into my right brain, and I now try to heed Taylor’s advice and cultivate ways of returning there from time to time.
Part of what makes Taylor’s talk so powerful is its unguardedness. Up on the TED stage, she opens the confines of her mind and shares what spills out with honesty and humanity. It’s such effective storytelling that her talk can serve as a master class in the form. Indeed, when I recently had the good fortune to give my own talk about my passion for eclipses, I studied her example. Take the time to watch Taylor’s performance and to absorb her message. You’ll never think about your own brain in quite the same way again.