Harvard-trained brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor answered questions from SMU and high school students Feb. 23, 2010, at the Turner Construction/Wells Fargo Student Forum of SMU’s 2009-2010 Tate Distinguished Lecture Series.
A neuroanatomist, Bolte Taylor talked about the debilitating stroke she suffered in 1996 in which she completely lost the ability to walk, talk, read, write or remember anything about herself or her life. Her recovery was an 8-year process. The author of My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, Bolte Taylor was named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2008. She was also the premiere guest on the Oprah’s Soul Series webcast.
Because Bolte Taylor has a brother diagnosed with schizophrenia, she has long had a special interest in severe mental illness. Read a sample of the conversation under the link below, or watch video of the Student Forum.
Do you have any recommendations for keeping the brain healthy as we age?
Oh, I love that question. Let’s talk about the teenage brain. When we’re born, we’re born with twice as many neurons as we’re ever going to use. We have all the cells but hardly any of them are connected to one another. Then we have experience through our sensory systems, and the neurons get stimulated and start reaching out and making a beautiful network of connections.
All these cells in your brain that have been stimulated start connecting with one another and create this beautiful network. They thrive and we learn how to walk, run, socialize and talk, but it’s all about me, me, me.
Then all of a sudden pre-puberty happens, about two years before the whole hormonal shift. From a neuroanatomical perspective – a physiological perspective – we’re being programmed to reproduce, so I can’t just be about me, me, me. So the brain does this exciting thing, it has an exuberance of new connections inside the brain.
Then when puberty hits, literally 40% to 60% of the synaptic connections in your cerebral cortex disappear. You literally lose half your mind. All the parents are going “Oh! Now I understand!” Everything changes when you become capable of reproduction.
So the question is, what connections are you going to keep? The ones you’re going to keep are the ones you use throughout puberty. So if you want to sing when you’re older, you have to sing through your puberty years. If you want to be a good athlete, if you want to be good at math, if you want to be good at chess, whatever it is, you have to do that throughout your puberty years.
Now puberty really lasts until 25. So my personal motto is “Keep ‘em alive ’til 25.” That???s my best advice. In order to keep your brain active you have to use it. What you’re going to be able to do when you’re in your 30s and 40s and 50s and 80s has everything to do with what you’re doing during puberty.
That’s the biggest reason why any kind of messing with the brain chemistry, with drugs and alcohol, can be detrimental, because you’re already losing 40% to 60% of your connections. So you have to be very careful because when you look at severe mental illnesses they show up in males between 15 and 25 and in women between 18 and 30. So these are the years that really matter. I’m not encouraging you to go there, but if you are tempted by drugs or alcohol – put it off until 25. By 25 you’re going to be making different decisions because your brain will have survived.
How do you relate your circumstances of having a stroke to your life’s work of studying schizophrenia for your brother?
My brother has such a skewed perception of reality from what we’d define as normal that it was very difficult for me to understand or relate to him pre-stroke. Post-stroke I have become so aware now that my perception is based on the functioning of the cells in the circuits inside of my brain. That has given me a personal level of compassion and understanding of “What does it really mean to say I have a delusional system?” If I have a belief system that my life is a certain way, then all the information that comes into my sensory systems feeds my understanding and my belief system and it is as real for me as your reality is for you.
I also saw what it is like to have a brain disorder and to be obviously impaired, obviously wounded, in a society that’s in a big hurry and rushed for information processing and I’m in the way of the normal left-brain society. That gave me a real awareness of the level of compassion we have inside ourselves that so often we do not exercise. I think my own personal mission is to help people realize that at the core of who we are in our right brains, we have a love and an understanding and a compassion for other people. It made me aware of the lack of compassion we express and I would like to see that change.
Do you consider yourself fully recovered?
At the 8-year mark I shifted from feeling like I was a fluid, because we are all fluids in a fluid atmosphere where everything is in motion. It takes a group of cells in your left hemisphere, in the parietal lobe, to define the boundaries of your body. I had lost that. I didn???t have the boundaries of my body or the perception that I was a solid separate from you. At the 8-year mark, I became a solid again. The intellectual stuff was back; I was back to teaching at medical school. Emotionally, I was probably healthier than I had ever been. Spiritually, I had a whole new way of looking at the world, and I was completely physically fit.
Are you doing the same things now that you were doing before the stroke?
Before the stroke I had two full-time jobs – in the lab cutting up brains, doing research and doing surgery, and I also taught and traveled around and talked to families of children with severe mental illness.
After the stroke I shifted away from ego to feeling what a blessing that I get to be here, and what can I do while I’m still alive to influence humanity to learn from this experience that I had because it was so profound?
I’ve gone back to teaching at the medical-school level. But 2 years ago I gave a presentation at a conference called TED. The TED talk changed my life because all of a sudden everybody knew about my experience with the stroke. Oprah found out, so I was invited to interview with her. Then there was a book deal.
I do a lot of keynote addresses. My book is coming out in 27 languages, and we’re in the final contractual agreements for a movie about my life. I’m traveling all over the world. I’m getting to influence the way medical systems in countries interact with stroke survivors and look at them as having the potential to recover. So I’m on a whole new career.
Where did you get the motivation to recover and the patience and courage to do what you’ve done?
Thank you. That was very nice. My motivation came from an awareness that in the absence of my intellectual mind, in the absence of the hurry I had been in, in the absence of “Oh my gosh I was so important in the world,” there was this incredible sense of peace that I felt inside, a sense of celebration, of gratitude, of generosity of spirit, just so fortunate to still be here, that I did not die that morning.
What a gift that was to me, to be in that space of peace and to realize that, from a brain perspective, we are wired to have that sense of peace and that sense of euphoria. I thought, “You know, if more of us knew that and if more of us exercised that circuitry in our brains, what a different world we would have.” And that was my motivation to come back.