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My Stroke of Insight Book Review

Book Review by Ann Jonas, Tradebook Buyer - CSB/SJU Bookstores
this review was published in the St. Cloud Visitor

My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D.

Jill Bolte Taylor was performing research and teaching young professionals about the human brain at Harvard Medical School when, at age thirty-seven, she suffered a massive stroke. She was alone in her apartment in December 1996 when a blood vessel hemorrhaged in the left side of her brain. My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey is her narrative of what happened during the stroke, when, in four hours’ time, she lost her ability to walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life. It is a remarkable tale because she fully recovered from the stroke, but also because, with her background as a neuroanatomist (brain scientist), she offers insights into the amazing functions of the human brain.

Taylor became fascinated with the human brain at an early age while growing up with an older brother who showed many signs of psychosis during his childhood. Her brother, who was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia, was only 18 months older than her, and she wondered why his experience of reality and behavior was so different from hers. She eventually earned her Ph.D. from Indiana State University Department of Life Science.

To help the reader more clearly understand what happened when her stroke occurred, Taylor provides considerable but simplified information on the brain’s makeup, with explanations and sketches of the regions and hemispheres of the brain. Much of her focus is on the right and left hemispheres (commonly known as right- and left-brain). Taylor explains how the two hemispheres process information in uniquely different ways, but work together in practically every action we undertake. These beginning chapters offer a reminder of how incredible and marvelous the human brain is.

In the middle part of the book, Taylor shares what happened as she was suffering her stroke: what she was thinking (“Oh my gosh, I’m having a stroke!” and “Wow, this is so cool!”), how she managed to get help when she couldn’t speak or remember to dial 911, and how her stroke affected the functions of her left brain and caused her to manage with only her right hemisphere--all as viewed through the eyes of a scientist. Taylor states that she learned as much about her brain and how it functions during the stroke as she had in all her years of academia. During the next eight years, Taylor was able to fully recover from her stroke. Because of her awareness of how the brain works and because of her understanding and knowledgeable mother (who became her caregiver) Taylor gained a deeper understanding of the mechanics of the human mind while making her recovery.

The last section of the book goes back to the left-brain/right-brain functions and how her stroke taught her to find a healthy balance between the functions of the two hemispheres. She states that prior to her stroke, her left hemisphere was capable of dominating the cells in the right, and as a result, she saw herself as often stubborn, arrogant and/or jealous. After her stroke, she gained insights into the most fundamental traits of her right-brain personality: deep inner peace and loving compassion. For this reason Taylor is convinced that her stroke was the best thing that could have happened to her. She states that her book is not really about stroke, but is about “the beauty and resiliency of our human brain because of its innate ability to constantly adapt to change and recover function.” Taylor suggests that her book will help readers achieve inner peace without experiencing stroke by learning to recognize and value all our cognitive gifts.

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