My Stroke of Insight

February 10, 2017.
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Jill Bolte Taylor:
My Stroke of Insight
(Among Top 20 Most Watched TED Talks)

Taylor is a neuro-anatomist, specialising in the effects of schizophrenia and mental illness on the human brain—an interest that developed due to her brother having been diagnosed with schizophrenia.  A graduate of Indiana State University, Taylor went on to do post-doctoral studies at Harvard Medical School and teach at Harvard School of Dental Medicine.  Taylor was on the Board of Directors of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) 1994-1997 and is still involved with this organisation and she is also a National Spokesperson for the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center (Harvard Brain Bank).

This is one of the 20 most watched TED Talks of all time, and it’s easy to see why.  Taylor tells a very personal and highly inspiring story that has a wider message and leaves the audience uplifted.  During her TED presentation Taylor stays more or less in one spot, marked out by a mat.  At the beginning her style is more scientific, but towards the end of her presentation, Taylor becomes more emotional. She relives her struggle to recover in the years after her stroke—as well as  expressing the impact of her stroke on her perception of the world, and how making more use of the right side of the brain can bring people inner peace and help towards creating a more peaceful world.

TED2008  19.9 million views on

It was while she was at Harvard that Taylor herself had a stroke, in December 1996.  Using a real brain, on stage—a prop that immediately grabs the audience’s attention—Taylor explains how the brain is divided into two parts, the right and the left hemispheres, which communicate with each other, but are also distinct from each other.

The right side is concerned with what is going on in the present, it thinks in pictures and learns about the world through kinesthetic senses (sight, hearing, and so on)—Taylor compares it to a Parallel Processor in computing—and it connects people with each other.

The left side is more linear, it processes data and, by combining that with its knowledge of the past, projects the possibilities open to it in the future – Taylor compares it to a Serial Processor in computing – it works through language rather than pictures, and is more focused on itself.

When Taylor awoke with her stroke in December 1996 she was not at first aware that she had had a stroke, in the left side of her brain. However, as the minutes went by it began to dawn on her and she then thought what a rare opportunity it was for a brain specialist to be able to monitor a stroke ‘from the inside’, as it were, and she monitored it for four hours before slipping into unconsciousness in the ambulance.

During her stroke, Taylor found that with the left side of her brain impaired she had no memory and no feelings of stress, but felt peaceful and a part of the world around her more intensely than she had ever done before.  Later that same month Taylor had an operation to remove a blood clot the size of a golf ball from her brain. It subsequently took her eight years to fully recover the faculties that she had lost.

In 2008 she published a book about her stroke and the effects it had on her life: My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, which became a New York Times best seller and has been translated into 30 languages.  In the same year TIME named her one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World.

An inspirational story.

Jill Bolte Taylor’s Website:

To access more TED videos:

This article first appeared in the EMC Quest newsletter series.

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