She Was a Brain Expert — Until She Lost Her Memory

Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; Photograph by Michael Collopy

Doing the Most is a special series about ambition — how we define it, harness it, and conquer it.

Jill Bolte Taylor was a rising-star neuroscientist at Harvard when, at 37, she experienced a massive stroke that left her unable to walk, talk, read, or recall any of her life. It took her eight years to fully recover — a process that included relearning the alphabet and eventually retraining herself in neuroanatomy. She chronicled the experience in her New York Times bestselling memoir, My Stroke of Insight, as well as a blockbuster TED Talk. Today, Taylor divides her time between the speaking circuit, teaching about the brain’s capacity for recovery, and working on her second book. We spoke to her about how the stroke changed her perspective on work, and what it means to be ambitious in the wake of a life-changing health crisis.  

Describing the immediate aftermath of your stroke, you’ve called yourself “an infant in a woman’s body.” At that point, what did you think the rest of your life would look like?
In the beginning, I had no concept of that. I didn’t have that capacity, just like an infant child. My mother’s only hope for me was that I would be able to one day live independently again. I had no skills. I had no language in my mind telling me I was Jill. Without knowing who you are, you have no data about your life beyond the present moment experience of being hungry or being tired or being in awe. So it was a process of regaining a worldview that existed beyond what I could see and smell and taste.

One of my first priorities was to regain language. About three weeks after the stroke, I had surgery to remove the blood clot, and then I had an absolutely silent mind for about two and a half weeks after that. And then my brain started to think in language again, and as my language came back online my world got bigger and bigger. I had to get control of that long before I was remotely concerned about taking care of myself.

Did the people around you think you would be able to fully recover?
I don’t think anybody had any clue about how much I would be able to recover or not. My stroke was severe. Cells died in my brain that were instrumental for language and mathematics. So I don’t think anybody knew. Some people in that condition would not have recovered at all.

What were your hopes for your recovery?
It was really just the basics. I wanted to earn enough of a living so that I could feed myself and have shelter over my head. When I fell off the Harvard ladder, I essentially moved into an income level below poverty level. Because I had no mind, I had no ability to work. I had no ability to earn money, and I did not have disability insurance. I ended up moving from the Boston area back to Indiana, where life is much more affordable. And I became extremely frugal. My earnings were below poverty level for the first eight years post-stroke — at least until the TED talk and the book went out into the world.

What was it like to relearn language? How long did that take? 
I remember my mom teaching me how to read. She had to teach me sounds — a-e-i-o-u. I had to relearn the alphabet. By about the three-month mark, I had the ability to understand and communicate about very simple things. By four or five months out, I could read, but I had zero comprehension. For me to go back and read my own academic papers took a good four to five years.

That’s a long time. How did you stay motivated?
You know, I ask myself that all the time. I had this curiosity. When I reach an obstacle, or something I don’t know, there’s something in my spirit that turns toward it because I’m curious and I want to understand. As long as I’m not tired or irritable, I tend to challenge myself. I wanted to know about the world again. I think part of that was because I had already been a competent human being — and so I knew the rewards of being a competent human being. I had known what it means to have connections with people and healthy relationships. I knew the end goal. I knew where I was going, and that helped me put one step in front of the other.

I was also so grateful that I was still alive. I made a conscious effort to stay out of my way emotionally or say, Well, I’m less than what I was. Another thing that was very helpful was that I was given years to recover. When I left the hospital after the stroke, my neurologist said to me, “We won’t know anything for a couple of years.” Because she gave me years, I felt free to sleep and take my time and not make negative judgments about myself.

Were there people who treated you like you were stupid?
Oh yeah. I mean, after the stroke, I didn’t look normal. I had weakness on one side of my body, and it was clear I had no understanding going on in my face. And I was slow — I was emotionally slow, I was cognitively slow, and I was physically slow. And people are impatient. If you’re trying to do some grocery shopping and you’re slow, that can really irritate a lot of people. It made me even more compassionate than I had been pre-stroke.

A few years after your stroke, you started teaching college courses again. What was that like?
I was teaching anatomy, physiology, and neuroscience, and I had to sit down and relearn the material. I would spend the two days before a lecture mastering that terminology again. It was an enormous workout, but it was a fantastic exercise in pushing my brain to its highest capacity. It was what my brain needed to push it to that level of function, with a ton of sleep in between.

How did your ambitions change after your stroke?
It was clear after the stroke that it was going to be years before I was capable of doing the work I did before. And I didn’t want to do what I did before, because I was essentially somebody new. I had a whole new perspective on who I was and how to make use of myself under the circumstances of what had happened to me.

Before the stroke, I was climbing the ladder at Harvard. I wanted to teach and do research. I was interested in understanding, at a cellular level, the differences between the brains of people who would be diagnosed as neurotypical and the brains of people who would be diagnosed with a severe mental illness. After the stroke, I had to mourn the death of who I had been before — but it was never my ambition to grow up to be that person again or to do the things that she had done.

At the time, I had been serving on the board of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. That’s a brain-related network, so after my stroke, word spread that I was recovering and I started getting invitations to keynote about the brain and the ability of the brain to recover. At that point, doctors were still telling stroke patients that if they didn’t recover in three to six months, then forget it. It made me angry. If you’re told by your doctor, “Don’t even bother to try,” then nobody’s going to recover. My brain was still recovering six, seven, eight years after the stroke. Before the stroke, I had been an advocate for the mentally ill, and then after the stroke, I became an advocate for the ability of the brain to recover.

When did you know you wanted to write a book?
After the stroke, I was spending literally six to eight hours a day on the phone speaking to people who had neurological trauma or their caregivers. My mother said to me, “Jill, you have to write this down and give it to the world, because you don’t have any time for your life. You’re on the phone all the time.”

By the eighth year, I felt I had completely recovered, so I wrote the book. It was an enormous task for me to undertake, and at the same time it was incredible for my brain to challenge itself in that way. It wasn’t easy, but it was important and necessary. I self-published the book, and then about a year later I did the TED Talk, and then I sold the book to Penguin. That was life exploding.

Your TED Talk is one of the most watched of all time. Why do you think your story has resonated with so many people?
I think losing our mind is one of the most terrifying concepts for anybody. And the irony of a brain scientist at Harvard who loses her mind and lives to tell the tale — I think it’s just a great story of the human spirit.

Do you ever feel frustrated that you had a stroke? 
Oh my God, no. I’m so grateful it happened. It took away all my stress circuitry. Who doesn’t want that? My left-brain emotional system went offline, and with that went all my negative judgment. It took away all my emotional baggage from the first 30 years of my life. And it set me on a new path of possibilities. The job I had before was fantastic, and I was prospering and winning awards and having a great time. But when that was all gone, I felt this incredible sense of relief because I was no longer juggling a billion details. Probably the biggest difference between who I am today and who I used to be is that I trust the details are going to fall in place as they’re supposed to fall in place with just a little direction from me. I don’t have to go out and try to control the world, which I can’t do anyway.

So after all this, do you consider yourself an ambitious person?
That’s an interesting question. I’m highly motivated to continue to achieve new abilities and awarenesses and new skill sets. I think I will always be motivated to help people better understand their brains and how we can choose which parts of our brains we are using at any moment in time in order to create more peace inside of ourselves and thus to act more peacefully in relationship to each other. So yeah, I’m very ambitious, now that I think about it.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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