Review: My stroke of insight by Jill Bolte Taylor

This isn’t a particularly new book, published four years ago in the UK. But if you have an interest in strokes, how the brain works and how you can make yours work better and – pertinently to the NHS, given recent scandals – how some healthcare professionals need to remember what care is, My stroke of insight is well-worth reading.

Jill Bolte Taylor, an American neuroanatomist, suffered a massive stroke at the age of 37. The best section of the book – which follows an admirably concise description of the brain’s structure and function – describes in thriller-like detail how she experienced her stroke, with brain functions and personality traits falling away. You will her to call 911, but “the haemorrhage growing in my cranium was positioned directly over the portion of my left brain that understood what a number was”. It is fascinating, educational and terrifying.

The next section, on how Dr Taylor starts to recover, should be read by anyone who treats stroke patients, or any other condition that leaves patients vulnerable. Of one medical student taking a medical history, she writes: “This young girl was an energy vampire. She wanted to take something from me despite my fragile condition, and she had nothing to give me in return.” The student handles Dr Taylor roughly: “I felt like a detail that had fallen through someone’s crack.” But she takes strength from the doctors who communicate with and reassure her.

She compares two nurses – primarily on the emotions they project, to which the stroke has massively sensitised her. She is grateful for the one that makes eye contact, asks if she is warm enough, needs water or is in pain; another brings her food but never looks her in the eye, and “raised her voice when she spoke to me, not realizing I wasn’t deaf… I did not feel safe in her care”. Both nurses were, by the sounds of it, performing their duties; but the first one was caring, and the second one was not. The same went for visitors.

Over the following years, Dr Taylor found that she could put most of her brain’s functions back online. Fascinatingly, she decides against reconnecting a few of them, preferring to retain some of the ‘in the moment’ right brain consciousness that overwhelmed her immediately after the stroke – she encourages readers to take “a step to the right”. In particular, she recommends paying less attention to the nagging critical voice that apparently comes from a peanut-sized piece of our left brains that she sometimes calls the Itty-Bitty Shitty Committee.

I would have enjoyed more of the brain hacking – Dr Taylor must be near-uniquely well-placed to understand this, given her scientific knowledge and her near-complete recovery from a major stroke. Instead, there was a little too much general positivity and upliftingness for my taste. Possibly that’s just my left brain talking, and my right brain was inclined to forgive sections such as those where she discusses the use of ‘angel cards’. Partly this is because you wish Dr Taylor well, but partly because it feels genuine – she might have written with more cool detachment before her stroke, but this is who she is after it – and she seems happier with who she is now.

Available through Amazon, other bookshops or your local library. More from my reading list.