How Briefly Losing Her Language & Memory Liberated This Neuroanatomist
On December 10, 1996, Jill Bolte Taylor woke just as she did every morning. A 37-year-old neuroanatomist, she worked in a psychiatry lab at Harvard University, where she studied the makeup of the brain. Her drive to map our cortical landscapes to understand their cellular interactions and the behaviors they produced grew out of her family history. Her brother had schizophrenia, and though she couldn’t expect to reverse his illness, it motivated her to try to unravel the mysteries of the mind. She was well on her way to doing so—that is, until the day her brain stopped functioning well.
Bolte Taylor got out of bed to do her morning exercise on a cardio machine, but she didn’t feel like herself. She had a pulsing pain behind her eye, like an ice-cream headache that came and went, and came and went. Then, once she started exercising, things got strange.
While on the machine, she felt her body slow down and her perception contract. “I can no longer define the boundaries of my body,” she later recalled. “I can’t define where I begin and where I end.”
The physical and mental experience of having a stroke.
Not only did she lose the sense of her body in physical space, she also began to lose her sense of who she was. She felt her emotions and memories drift away, as if they were leaving her to take up residence elsewhere. The second-by-second sparking of perceptions and reactions that characterized her normal mental awareness faded. She felt her thoughts losing their shape, and with them, her words. Her verbal stream slowed like a river drying up. Her brain’s linguistic machinery broke down.
A blood vessel had popped on the left side of her brain. She was having a stroke.
While her physical movements and linguistic faculties were drastically encumbered, she managed to phone a colleague, who quickly gathered that something was wrong. Soon after, Bolte Taylor found herself in the back of an ambulance being taken to Massachusetts General Hospital.
“I felt my spirit surrender,” she said. “I was no longer the choreographer of my life.” Sure that she was going to die, she said farewell to her life.
What it means to lose your inner voice.
She didn’t die. Later that afternoon she woke up in a hospital bed, astonished that she was still alive, though her life wouldn’t be the same for a long time. Her inner voice as she had always known it had departed. “My verbal thoughts were now inconsistent, fragmented, and interrupted by an intermittent silence,” she later recalled. “I was alone. In the moment, I was alone with nothing but the rhythmic pulse of my beating heart.”
She wasn’t even alone with her thoughts, because she didn’t have thoughts as she’d had before.
Her working memory wasn’t working, making it impossible to complete the simplest tasks. Her phonological loop, it seemed, had unraveled. Her self-talk was silenced. She was no longer a mental time traveler capable of revisiting the past and imagining the future. She felt vulnerable in a way she had never even imagined possible, as if she were spinning by herself in outer space.
She wondered, wordlessly, if words would ever return in full to her mental life. Without verbal introspection, she ceased to be human in the previous sense she had known. “Devoid of language and linear processing,” she wrote, “I felt disconnected from the life I had lived.”
Most profoundly of all, she lost her identity. The narrative her inner voice had allowed her to construct over nearly four decades erased itself. “Those little voices inside your head,” as she put it, had made her her, but now they were silent. “So, was I really still me? How could I still be Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, when I no longer shared her life experiences, thoughts, and emotional attachments?”
The unexpected (and freeing) outcome.
When I imagine what it would be like to go through what Jill Bolte Taylor experienced, it fills me with panic. Losing the ability to talk to myself, to use language to tap into my intuitions, stitch together my experiences into a coherent whole, or plan for the future, sounds much worse than a letter from a deranged stalker. Yet, it’s here where her story gets stranger and even more fascinating.
Bolte Taylor wasn’t frightened the way I imagine I, or anyone else in her situation, would feel. Remarkably, she found a comfort like nothing she had ever felt before when her lifelong internal conversation vanished.
“The growing void in my traumatized brain was entirely seductive,” she later wrote. “I welcomed the reprieve that the silence brought from the constant chatter.” She had gone, as she put it, to la-la land.
Being robbed of language and memory, on the one hand, was terrifying and lonely. On the other hand, it was ecstatically, euphorically liberating. Free from her past identity, she could also be free from all her recurring painful recollections, present stresses, and looming anxieties. Without her inner voice she was free from chatter.
To her, this trade-off felt worth it. She later reflected that this was because she hadn’t learned to manage her buzzing inner world prior to her stroke. Like all of us, she had trouble controlling her emotions when she got sucked into negative spirals.
Two and a half weeks after her stroke, Bolte Taylor would have surgery to remove a golf-ball-sized blood clot from her brain. It would take her eight years to fully recover. She continues to conduct research on the brain while also sharing her story with the world.
She emphasizes the overwhelming sense of generosity and well-being she felt when her inner critic was muted. She is now, as she describes it, “a devout believer that paying attention to our self-talk is vitally important for our mental health.”
What her experience shows us—in singularly vivid terms—is how deeply we struggle with our inner voice. We struggle to the point where the stream of verbal thoughts that allows us to function and think and be ourselves could lead to expansively good feelings when it’s gone.
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