A Great Book to Read over the Holidays – “My Stroke of Insight,” by Jill Bolte Taylor

Book ReviewMy Stroke of Insight “ a Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D.,

Taylor’s book provides a unique education about our brains, in particular, about how the two different hemispheres of our brains work. together and independently.  Taylor provides insight into the impact of impaired brain functioning, something that is critical to the health and safety of shift workers and to the success of shift work operations.  Shift workers are known to exist on less than the optimal amount of sleep ~ typically 5 hours versus 7-8 hours; while obviously not as severe as a stroke, sleep deprivation has been shown to have a significant negative impact on the brain.s ability to perform.

There have been many studies on the impact of sleep deprivation on the brain.  In one study (Dai-Jin Kim et al, International Journal of Neuroscience, 2001), sleep deprived subjects showed no differences in distractibility, physical and visual functioning, reading, writing, arithmetic, and intellectual processes when compared to study participants who were allowed to sleep.  However, cognitive functions such as motor skills, rhythm, receptive and expressive speech, memory and complex verbal and arithmetic functions were decreased after sleep deprivation.  In another study (Drummond et al, Nature, 2000), researchers found dynamic, compensatory changes in cerebral activation during verbal learning after sleep deprivation. The researchers found that the prefrontal cortex (controls decision making and following through with thoughts and actions) and the parietal lobes (sensory integration) were key factors in allowing the subjects to function after sleep deprivation.  In other words, our brains work hard to compensate when we are sleep deprived and this may explain why some people claim they can exist on very little sleep “ something we don’t recommend.

When Jill Bolte Taylor experienced a massive stroke on the left side of her brain, the then thirty-seven-year-old Harvard educated neuroanatomist (a specialist in the human nervous system), was completely incapacitated within four hours.  Our bodies’ neuroanatomy controls our thoughts, language, reasoning, perception, emotions, memory, movement, balance, posture, vision, breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, hunger, thirst, and our circadian rhythms.  So, it was no surprise that Jill couldn’t walk, read, write, or remember any of her life, despite her unique knowledge of the human brain and human neurology.

Taylor’s book offers readers a special look into a rare window; a chance to experience a stroke as the author is having it.  Besides providing insight into the warning signs of a stroke (speech impairment, numbness and tingling in the body, memory problems, feel off-balance, blurred vision, headache), the book gives a compelling view of the differences between the right and left hemispheres of our brains.  According to Taylor, our two hemispheres complement and work in synergy with each other, so it’s virtually impossible to consciously distinguish what’s going on in our left hemisphere versus our right.  The left-hemisphere motor area controls the right side of our bodies and the right-hemisphere area controls the left.  Our right hemisphere is spontaneous, carefree, and imaginative, says Taylor.  This part of our mind is rich with sensations, thoughts, emotions, and often physiological responses.  Our right mind focuses on the present moment, thinking outside the box and without inhibition or judgment.  It sees the big picture, how everything is related, and how we all join together to make up the whole.

On the other hand, our left hemisphere thrives on details, facts, and information.  In most people, the left hemisphere is “dominant” for language: a stroke that damages a key language area in the left hemisphere can leave the victim unable to speak or understand; equal damage to the right hemisphere would cause only minor impairment to language skills.  The left brain defines the self by repeating the details of your life over and over again so you can remember them,reports Taylor.  The left brain allows us to process large volumes of information with minimal attention and calculation.  Because our left brain is so adept at pattern recognition, Taylor says.It is superb at predicting what we will think, how we will act, or what we will feel in the future  based on our past experience. Through critical analysis and judgment, Taylor says our left brain constantly compares ourselves with everyone else.

Taylor uses music as an example of how our left and right hemispheres complement each other.  She says that our left brain compels us to meticulously practice our scales over and over again or to memorize which fingering on a certain instrument will generate the right note.  We use our right brain when we improvise or play by ear.

When Taylor had her stroke, she experienced its impact in her left hemisphere.  Without the language ability to communicate, the emotional circuitry reminding her of her likes and dislikes, and having lost her regular patterns of critical judgment, Taylor reports that she felt a bizarre shift in perception, her own perception of herself.  She says that on that day, she learned the meaning of simply being.  She felt no rush to do anything.  She felt enormous and expansive as opposed to how she’d felt previously ” small and isolated”.  She says, “My soul was as big as the universe.”

Back to shift workers..sleep deprivation and stress cause us to revert back to old patterns; old ways to do things.  So, instead of using our creative right brains to improvise and find new solutions to challenges we face, we are prone to do things by rote; more on automatic pilot.  Our left brain functions would seem to supersede our right.

Taylor’s book also provides insight as to how the brain repairs itself after injury.  She says that by day four [after the stroke] I was still spending most of my time sleeping as my brain craved minimal stimulation.Her brain was taking a time out from new stimulation “ sleeping was quiet time necessary for her brain to make sense out of what had happened”.  Her brain was physically traumatized by the stroke and the sensory stimulations she was exposed to caused her much confusion.  Sleep helped her sort out the chaos.  Perhaps this is a good way for shift workers to look at sleep; its ne’cessary to sort out the chaos that shift workers are likely to face exponentially.

Watch Jill Bolte Taylor on TED!  See her talk about her experience firsthand.

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