My Stroke of Insight

What a promising book! My Stroke of Insight is an initially interesting but ultimately irritating work of non-fiction by Jill Bolte Taylor; I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by the author herself. The promise is that Dr. Taylor, a brain scientist (neuroanatomist) at Harvard, will give her unique perspective on the massive stroke she suffered in the left hemisphere of her brain 20 years ago. She not only survived the stroke but regained all her faculties and continues to lecture about the stroke. Apparently she no longer does research at McLean’s, which is what she was doing at the time of the stroke.

So I had high hope for this book. The first part of it is fascinating: a lot of discussion about the anatomy of the brain, different kinds of strokes, and so forth. And the description of how her mother cared for her for her eight (!) years of recovery was moving and effective.

But I have two major issues with the book.

Most fundamentally, I just don’t believe it.

I don’t mean that I disbelieve the main outline: I do believe that Dr. Taylor really is a brain scientist at Harvard, that she really experienced the massive stroke she describes, and that she recovered from it. I do believe that music and visual arts were helpful in her recovery. What I don’t believe is her total self-awareness, from the beginning of this experience to the end. She says that she lost all language, all memory, all left-brain cognition, all awareness of who she was, all knowledge of numbers — all of which is believable — but somehow she knows exactly what was happening the whole time. Apparently that’s because the book reflects a reconstructed memory that arose from many sessions with a Gestalt therapist. It makes a great story, but it’s completely implausible. There is no way she could have this kind of awareness of her own brain during such a prolonged traumatic time.

Which brings us to my second issue: the book is filled with New Age mysticism, ranging from talking to her brain cells to communicating with some sort of unspecified energy. This mysticism makes me all the more skeptical of the extremely binary left-brain/right-brain distinction that Dr. Taylor discusses in all too much detail. Mysticism isn’t convincing. As far as I’m concerned, any trained scientist who believes in angel cards, cells that talk to you, and lots of unproved alternative therapies has lost all credibility.

The last straw was Dr. Taylor’s well-known TED talk, which I watched for about eight minutes before I just had to give up. I couldn’t take it any more: mystical nonsense except for the brief demonstration of a real human brain.

It’s all too bad, as I really wanted to like the book, especially since the last word of the book is “Harvard.” Harvard always does think of itself as the last word in everything, after all.


Categories: Books