My stroke of insight

In her book My Stroke of Insight (2006), Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a 37-year-old neuroanatomist, describes how her life changed completely in the space of just four hours as a result of a stroke. It rendered the logical and clear-thinking left hemisphere of her brain useless. This half of the brain controls the language function, and houses the ability to speak and to reason, but is also responsible for the awareness of time and the capacity to integrate facts and details into a coherent story. Furthermore, this left hemisphere enables details from the here and now to connect with facts from the past, thereby making it possible to interpret events (what is happening now, and what will this mean for the future). Additionally, this left hemisphere ‘contains’ the ego and your awareness of your identity.

What Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor does have access to after the stroke is the empathetic and parallel-thinking right hemisphere of her brain. This spontaneous and carefree side thinks in images and oversees the bigger picture. It also forms the foundation for intuition and imagination, and houses the ability to be completely present in the here and now. Additionally, this right hemisphere ensures that individuals are satisfied not only with themselves, but also with everyone in their environment (this half of the brain is not judgemental).

Because, after her stroke, Jill initially experiences life based solely on the right side of her brain, she lives in a state of euphoria (her ‘Nirvana’). As a result, during her recovery process (and when the left side of her brain has become active again) she becomes conscious of how much influence the left hemisphere has actually had on her life. Gradually, the intense realization dawns on her of how her internal voice has converted ‘bad’ experiences into negative thoughts. And how in the past her behaviour had often been influenced by these thoughts!

The insights she describes in her book include the following 5.

  • My unexpected insight is that peace is only a thought away, and all we have to do is access its silence, the voice of our dominating left mind.
  • I have no control (or no total control) over what happens to me, but I do have total power to decide how to respond to my experiences.
  • My unexpected insight is that the awareness of the right side of my brain has a fundamental character that is directly in contact with my experience of a deep inner peace.
  • When you berate yourself, have you ever questioned: who inside of you is doing the yelling, and at whom are you yelling? Have you ever noticed how these negative internal thought patterns have the tendency to generate increased levels of inner hostility and/or raised levels of anxiety?
  • I have noticed that the last thing a really dominant left hemisphere wants is to share the limited space in our brain with an open-minded right hemisphere.

Watch this powerful video film in which Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor talks about her ‘unexpected insight’.

What can you learn from this? Once again, it’s a confirmation of the ‘simple’ fact that we are constantly creating our own reality. And that we also have a choice in this! After all, it’s not the circumstances that make us unhappy, but our thoughts about them (Nin Sheng).

Let me give you an example: if someone makes an insulting comment, you can become angry about it with reason. Our brain then releases a chemical that rushes through our whole body. This chemical will have completely left our body after 90 seconds and in theory, we will no longer experience a feeling of anger. But even after those 90 seconds we are still able to feel angry (and experience the accompanying emotional and physiological reactions). If this is the case, then you are the only one responsible for making that choice; you are listening to that little voice in your left hemisphere! The alternative is for you to let go and continue, so that you ‘surrender’ to the positive perspective that is the natural goal of your right hemisphere. It’s all about which perspective you choose – a topic that is a recurring theme in my coaching sessions.

Take up the following challenge: the next time you experience negative thoughts, let them be fully present for 90 seconds. Experience them in the here and now, observe them without judging them. Then try to approach the incident that made you angry from a new perspective. What did you learn, about the other person, about yourself, or about the situation. Not that this will give you a completely different viewpoint on the situation and that you will start behaving differently. But it’s about practising looking at the same reality from a different perspective, and becoming increasingly better at adapting your perspective. And consequently having fewer negative thoughts and associated actions in the future. What have you got to lose… or is this challenge triggering your internal voice into rebel mode?

I wish you many positive thoughts!

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