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Brain scientist studies herself after stroke

Brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor became her own experimental subject when a blood vessel in the left half of her brain exploded in 1996. (Photo: courtesy of Jill Bolte Taylor)
When she suffered a massive brain hemorrhage in 1996, Harvard-trained neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor became her own experimental subject. The mystical experience she describes as her brain’s language center “went offline” has become the subject of a best-selling book and one of the most watched TED Talks ever.

On the Thursday webcast of Crosstalks, she joins a panel discussion about research into understanding the brain, along with KTH Professor Anders Lansner, one of the scientists involved in the EU’s ambitious project to model a human brain using supercomputers.

Taylor was studying brain disorders in 1996 when she awoke one morning to realize she was suffering a rare form of stroke. A blood vessel exploded in the left half of her brain, where our analytical functions are performed. As her left hemisphere shut down, Taylor watched as her ability to process information gradually deteriorated.

In her famous TED Talk in 2008, Taylor described how her consciousness shifted almost entirely to her right hemisphere.

“I could not walk, talk, read, write or recall any of my life. I essentially became an infant in a woman’s body.”

But the experience was a revelation that transformed her consciousness. And she sought to understand the science of what had happened.

“At first I was shocked to find myself inside of a silent mind,” she says. “But then I was immediately captivated by the magnificence of the energy around me. And because I could no longer identify the boundaries of my body, I felt enormous and expansive. I felt at one with all the energy that was, and it was beautiful there.”

Today, Taylor says she can switch back and forth between the hemispheres of her brain—an ability she says is probably similar in effect to meditation or the practice of religion. And she’s made it a mission of hers to spread awareness about the benefits of doing so.

“The more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner-peace circuitry of our right hemispheres, the more peace we will project into the world, and the more peaceful our planet will be.”

We spend more than enough time in our left hemisphere, she says. “We’re missing the present moment, which is where our joy is. We’re wired for both. All I’m looking for is a balanced brain model for us as humanity to get on a track where we can really consciously choose who, and how, we want to be.”

It will be interesting to see how this pure experience of the right hemisphere is modeled in the ambitious Human Brain Project. The EUR 1 billion effort involves nearly 100 institutions and will network KTH’s Lindgren supercomputer with others to simulate the cells, chemistry and connectivity of the brain. The aim is to understand the brain’s architecture, organisation, functions and development.

“The benefit is intended to be for medical science as well as ICT,” Lansner explains. “Advanced ICT tools, that is, brain simulation and data analysis, will enable building a mechanistic understanding of how the brain works. This will be very useful, for instance, to help develop new better drugs to treat brain diseases and psychiatric disorders.

Lansner says that because the brain is the only known example of a truly intelligent “machine”, learning more about how it works will enable the building of “brain-like computers, which by definition will be able to self-organize and learn and show brain-like intelligence.”

David Callahan

Understanding and Mapping the Human Brain will be webcast live at 6 p.m. CET, April 22 at 

Crosstalks is an academic web talk show where recognized researchers from two of Sweden’s top universities, KTH Royal Institute of Technology and Stockholm University, discuss global topics live with viewers worldwide. Crosstalks is an international academic forum where the brightest minds share knowledge and insights on the basis of leading research.





David Callahan is editor for international news and media at KTH Royal Institute of Technology.