Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for July, 2010

My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey

Posted by nliakos on July 7, 2010

by Jill Bolte Taylor

My first introduction to Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, brain anatomist, was her extraordinary TED talk from February 2008 by the same name:

In this riveting talk (the first one I ever listened to! Now is my favorite website), Taylor describes in great detail the devastating cerebral hemorrhage she experienced at the age of 37. She explains how the blood that flooded through the left hemisphere of her brain shut down its function, leaving her with only her right hemisphere, and describes the sense of total peace and connection with everything in the universe she experienced when this happened. At the end of the talk, she claims that she can now voluntarily “go to” this place of peace and interconnection at will.

In the book, Taylor describes the stroke as well, but most of the chapters are devoted to describing her long (eight-year) recovery post-stroke, which she only touches on in the talk. This makes for fascinating reading. She went from almost total incapacitation to almost total recovery (apparently she did not return to her scientific research, but one gets the impression that had she wanted to, she might have been able to do that; instead, she opted to nurture her new “right-brain self” discovered during and after the stroke; she writes and speaks about her experience and also creates art based on the brain). She writes how her mother moved in with her to manage her recovery and how they fought for each tiny bit of progress she made. What a hero her mother is!

Taylor stresses that doctors who warn that any abilities not regained by six months post-stroke will be forever lost are WRONG, citing her own eight-year recovery. This is really important information for everyone to be aware of! If she had stopped trying to improve after six months, the book would never have been written nor the talk given; she would probably be living out her days in a nursing home.

As a friend and I were listening to the audiobook together, she mentioned that it reminded her very much of Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now (summary here).  We listened to that as well, and the resemblance is indeed striking. Tolle never refers to the right brain, but his “enlightenment” or “pure consciousness” and Taylor’s blissful right-brain state of inner peace seem to be exactly the same thing.  Tolle’s thinker is Taylor’s brain-chatter.  Taylor’s book provides a possible physical explanation for Tolle’s concept of spiritual enlightment.  It’s very interesting to read the two books together.

My Stroke of Insight Home:

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Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before

Posted by nliakos on July 7, 2010

by Tony Horwitz.  Picador, 2002.

Of course I had heard of Captain Cook–hasn’t everyone? But what did I really know about him?  Nothing.  I think I used to mix him up with Captain Hook (possibly that is what J. M. Barrie intended!).  But no more.  Thanks to Horwitz’s book, I now know something about this extraordinary man who rose from the English working class to explore some of the remotest lands imaginable, from the Arctic to the Antarctic with a plethora of South Sea islands (and Australia and New Zealand) in between.  Horwitz writes, “In 1768, when Cook embarked for the first time, roughly a third of the world’s map remained blank, or filled with fantasies: sea monsters, Patagonian giants, imaginary continents. Cook sailed into this void in a small wooden ship and returned, three years later, with charts so accurate that some of them stayed in use until the 1990s.” (p. 3)

Horwitz based his book on both research and personal travels (he starts out as a hand on a replica of Cook’s ship the Endeavor and follows that up with travel to most of the places Cook went to, where he not only sought out official monuments and exhibitions pertaining to the captain but also interviewed the locals to find out what they think about Cook today).  Much of the information about Cook’s original voyages came from the journals of Cook himself and his fellow sailors and scientists.  Dry facts are livened up with references to Horwitz’s travel companion, a Briton living in Australia named Roger, whose primary interests in life seem to be drinking and women.

Reading today about Cook’s feats of navigation and endurance, it is hard to believe that he actually did what he did, so dangerous was it. He and his men and ships got into such difficulties it seems impossible that they survived them all.  (Many did not, and Captain Cook himself was eventually killed in a fight with native Hawaiians.) But they managed to keep going for an awfully long time, and Cook made not one but three of these astonishing voyages into the unknown.

Horwitz portrays Cook as an extremely intelligent and able man who for the most part treated the people he “discovered” with respect and friendship (while claiming their land for the King), punishing severely those of his men who did not do so.  Still, he acknowledges (and believes that Cook also foresaw) the many negative changes in these people’s lives that would come as a result of European contact. I felt that he gives the reader a balanced view. An excellent book.

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