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Book report: "My Stroke of Insight"
Old 02-07-2009, 02:16 PM   #1
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Book report: "My Stroke of Insight"

"As seen on Oprah", over 12 years ago Jill Taylor had a stroke. Hers was caused by an artery-vein weakness in the left hemisphere of her brain after years of undiagnosed migraine headaches. At age 37 the vein ruptured and hemorrhaged throughout her motor cortex, her sensory cortex, her brain's areas controlling her ability to speak & understand speech and to do math, and her orientation cortex. It required surgery to remove a golf-ball-sized blood clot and repair the blood vessels.

It would have killed anyone else, but Dr. Taylor is a neuroanatomist at the Harvard Brain Institute. She conducts brain research and teaches at medical school. She diagnosed herself and eventually managed to figure out how to place a phone call for help-- before she lost those abilities. Even with her understanding and experience, and arguably the world's best stroke care/rehab, she spent eight years regaining all of her mental capabilities. Every year, with continuous therapy & effort, her brain would gradually relearn another skill. It wasn't just a matter of reconnecting disrupted neurons-- it was also a challenge of teaching different neurons to replicate skills that had been lost as other neurons died.

Unlike other "brain books" I've read, this one is written by a left-brain thinker for other left-brain thinkers. It's an engineer's guide to the structure & function of the brain that even explains all that squishy new-age right-brain gobbledygook in technical vocabulary. She doesn't just list her feelings-- she describes her stroke & recovery in terms of human brain design & function. As her left-brain cells began to die (red blood cells are actually toxic to neurons) her right brain took over and put her in a "state of rapture". She'd occasionally realize "I'm having a stroke" or "I have to get help!" while the right side of her brain would overwhelm her with the emotional surges of "Wow, this is so cool!!" Once her left brain shut down, leaving her right brain "in charge", she found it very hard to leave "Nirvana" to have to bother to return to interacting with the rest of the human race.

Her insights are dramatically changing stroke treatment & therapy. She's very clear about what worked and what didn't, and her descriptions make it easier to understand how to communicate with and help a stroke victim. Half of the battle was dealing with overstimulation-- for the first two weeks after the stroke she could barely stay awake for 90 minutes before she'd need six hours of sleep. (For most of her recovery she had to sleep at least 11 hours/day.) She'd lost the ability to deal with light & noise, to understand color, to separate perception into three dimensions, and even to parse speech. Before her experience, many medical experts regarded excessive sleep as a sign of withdrawal or even depression so they'd stimulate or medicate the patient. She believes that many left-brain stroke victims just gave up on conflicting treatment/therapy and withdrew into their right brain. Without a persistent effort to rehab the left brain, they eventually lapsed into that status quo and became "disabled" instead of "wounded but recovering".

As she recounts her recovery, she also describes how it helped research into brain function. Various imaging techniques can actually track the brain activity of monks and nuns as they consciously quiet their left brains and enjoy meditation or "unite with God". She's much more aware of her left-brain/right-brain dichotomy, including the analytical voice in her head and her ability to sense emotion and intuit social situations. She knows now that her emotional reactions will last for about 90 seconds of biochemistry, but any feeling beyond that is a conscious decision of her left brain that she can control. She's much more aware of herself, her emotions, and her behavior. She's also a lot calmer and less critical. As her analytical intelligence has returned (or "redeveloped"), her other aspects of intelligence (especially emotional and artistic) have soared with understanding and skilled practice.

I've read lots of books on brain function and left/right behavior, and I've even tried to understand "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain", but Dr. Taylor explains it with incredible detail and demonstrates the changes. As she describes the shutdown and recovery of her left brain, it's much easier to appreciate how the right brain functions and how the two hemispheres can either cooperate with each other or perpetually struggle. It also gave me a much better appreciation for people dealing with stroke rehab and mental conditions. Even more intriguing, it may be possible to control many types of "involuntary" reactions.

If you're not impressed with her public appearances, it's worth giving her another chance. When I saw her on Oprah she came across as a bit of a Suze-Orman zealous whacko. I think she overperforms that character to call attention to her avocation and the need for further brain research. I found her book much better than her sound bites.

One caveat-- if you're in your 20s-30s and coping with migraine symptoms, this book will scare you straight to a brain-scan appointment.


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Old 02-07-2009, 03:00 PM   #2
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Old 02-07-2009, 04:12 PM   #3
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I knew a lady, previously an entomologist. After her massive stroke, no longer able to talk. However anyone, who could sing opera even if badly could communicate with her. Prior to the stroke, she was not know to either enjoy or listen to opera.

Normally, to figure out what she needed, wanted, we'd play "twenty questions".

Seen Dr Taylor's presentation a while back, her description of the event was truly amazing.
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Old 02-07-2009, 06:20 PM   #4
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I find this fascinating and frightening. Odds are I will have a stroke around 80 (going by 3 generations of family history).
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Old 02-07-2009, 06:32 PM   #5
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My mother in law had a stroke years ago. Watching how this impacted her life forever changed DH and I. Before the stroke she was a vital person in control of her life. Now she counts her days in a nursing home. It's heartbeaking to use because we love her so much.
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Old 02-07-2009, 11:11 PM   #6
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This rang a bell with me - she did a Science Friday segment a while back -

Science Friday Archives: Stroke of Insight

From what I recall, the link that T-Al gave was much better. It was fascinating to hear a brain scientist talk about the opportunity to study her own brain while she was experiencing a stroke. Incredible.

A friend of mine had a stroke. He said that when they are asking you all those questions, like what year is it, who is the President, etc - that he could hear and understand and know the answers - he just could not manage to communicate with "the outside world" to tell them that he knew the answers, and that was frustrating.

Fortunately he has recovered, with some minor physical limitations. Scary stuff.

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Old 02-07-2009, 11:24 PM   #7
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I saw her on Oprah and have her book on my mental list to read...
the most touching part of her story was when her mom came to see her at the hospital and crawled into the bed with her and gave her comfort. Some of her story also sounded similar to how some people describe experiences with certain drugs...she also mentioned how hard she had to fight and had to "choose" to get better versus staying in the happy squishy place.
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Old 02-08-2009, 09:51 AM   #8
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This is the kind of stuff that made me go into that field.

I take her talk with a little grain of salt. It's true that with a number of brain disorders, you can lose the distinction between what's your body and what's not. But based on the above clip, she seems to take it to another level -- a kind of semi-spiritual, lovefest level. That could partly be the brain damage talking.

This book is fascinating and enjoyable: The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales: Oliver Sacks: Books
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Old 02-10-2009, 09:03 AM   #9
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So, I guess this is an odd first post on the forum (been browsing for a while), but I must say that Jill is one of the most interesting people I have ever had the privilege of knowing.

I met her several years ago as a first year medical student in gross anatomy lab. She would occasionally show up in lab, go around to tables, help out with dissection and such. She was never formally introduced so we initially just assumed she was some sort of lab assistant. Eventually we asked around to find out who this lady was who was always "ooohing" and "aahhhhing" at the bodies (I don't think she ever pointed anything out to us without commenting on how beautiful it was). We discovered some of her back story and of course went on to talk in length to her about things over the course of the year. She was actually in the process of relearning everything and getting back into teaching. Many very interesting conversations were had to say the least.

What always struck me was her genuine childlike amazement and excitement about the world. Like mentioned in the video, apparently some of the brain damage wiped out all past emotional baggage. She got a chance to exerience the world anew. Yeah, sometimes she would come across a bit hippy-dippy, but all of us in the class at some point thought..."boy, having a stroke sounds kinda cool"
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Old 02-10-2009, 03:27 PM   #10
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Thanks for reminding me - I saw her on TV a few years ago and the way she described her stroke and reaction was fascinating.

As for the Sacks book, I haven't read it but I read another book the was similar. I was in the Landstuhl library skimming the titles in the stacks and found this book - it was amazing. It was a nueroscientist/surgeon's description of how specific brain injuries affected behavior and personalities. He would go into the anatomy and physiology of that particular injury and then describe the person's physical or emotional behavior - fascinating. And of course for a biomedical engineer like me, the combination of the description of the structure along with the function was irresistable.

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