Stained glass brain image, created by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor
She was a scientist, a workaholic, and an expert in the human mind. Then one morning her own brain turned against her.
Several weeks before Christmas, 1996, Jill Bolte Taylor, PhD, was squeezing a plastic orange brain at her desk and trying to get off the phone. The brain, a Nerf ball, was one of several that had accumulated around the offices of the Harvard Brain Bank, where she worked as a researcher. Behind her was a blown-up photograph of cerebral tissue; in front of her, a stack of urgent phone messages she was rushing to get through. Her office was up for an award, and if she didn't want to miss the limo to the ceremony at Massachusetts General Hospital, she'd better get going.
At the ceremony, the crew sat on metal chairs in an atrium. A man stood and praised their work, and she got a little giddy, wondered vaguely if the rest of the day would be a wipe. It was. She put in a couple of hours at the office, stopped by the gym, went home, messed around, was in bed by 10. Felt fine.
So it made no sense when, the next morning, she woke around 7 with a pulsing pain behind her left eye, a sharp ache, like biting into ice cream. She never had headaches. She was 37, "healthy as an ox," she says. Each morning, no excuse, she did 25 minutes on the cardio glider to Shania Twain. Come to think of it, that's probably just what she needed—get some oxygen to the poor old gray matter, get cracking, haul the body in to work. She climbed on the machine and grabbed the bar, then stared, fascinated, at her fingers. Had they always looked that chunky?
Each swing of motion pumped pain to her head. She ignored this fact, pressed harder to break a sweat. But then instinct slowed her. The room was different. A shimmer was rising off the floor, like blacktop in summer, blurring the edges behind it. Something's wrong, she thought with detachment, shifting to keep her balance. She gave one more push—and slid into the blur.
The silence here was remarkable. Noise from the street had disappeared. Even the chatter in her head was dying, but the pulsing was getting worse. Light was a burning flood, a caustic stream of vibration. She got up, stumbled, turned off the lights, and as she did she noticed her whole hand looked weird, as though it belonged to someone else. She had no idea what was going on.
She was a brain scientist trained to watch the brain, so she did. And even as her brain was starting to deteriorate for a reason she couldn't gauge, it was reporting back. Entire areas appeared to be shutting down. Through the haze of pain, she could chart them. Noise distortion meant something was wrong with her auditory cortex, light sensitivity indicated a problem with the visual area, and she noted all of this as if she were observing a clinical case. She wasn't the least bit afraid. Later she'd learn that the connection between the amygdala (the fear center) and whatever registers that emotion in the conscious mind was gone. Only 10 minutes had elapsed since she woke with the headache. She could no longer feel fear.
It wasn't until 20 minutes had passed—after she got into the shower and, reeling from the buckshot explosion of water, leaned against the wall and felt herself blending in; after she began to fade in and out of a place of bliss where no boundaries existed and she was one with everything—that she figured out what was wrong. As she was wondering how she'd be able to drive to work, her right arm went dead and she knew: "Oh my God," she thought. "I'm having a stroke." Then a clattery hum distracted her, the sound, she's convinced, of her own cells working. Her cells were audible to her—that's how slowed she'd become. A while later, drifting back into awareness, she dimly thought: "Isn't this cool? How many brain scientists get to see this up close?"
We Hear You!