By David Amirsadri
I wanted to like My Stroke of Insight. I truly did. A slim volume, the book’s subject– a neuroscientist’s recovery from a stroke– intrigued me. The book’s author, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, was a compelling speaker and an accomplished neuroscientist in her own right. Her expertise and experiences must, I imagined, yield an excellent work. Unfortunately, the text consisted of nothing more than New-Agey fluff, lacking any real substance. Though an accomplished neuroscientist, Taylor’s foray into the world of spiritualism yielded a foul product– as My Stroke of Insight demonstrates.
Taylor opens her book by detailing the various forms of stroke. Hers was borne of an arteriovenous malformation (AVM)– an abnormality in the blood vessels of the brain. A gripping first-person account of the stroke is included, and Taylor details her long and arduous recovery period. Her descriptions of cravings for sleep following the stroke, the pain of exposure to light, and the ease with which her energy was depleted makes for exceptionally gripping writing. Taylor details for the reader her “stroke of insight”– a state of Nirvana brought on by the stroke– and includes resources for stroke avoidance and recovery.
The book, though a gripping account of the horrors of neurological damage, leaves much to be desired. Psychologist Tal-Ben Shahar tells us that gratitude begets happiness (Ben-Shahar 10), and the prospect of losing a great deal of one’s abilities in so abrupt a manner certainly allows one to feel gratitude for their health. The book will surely resonate with anyone who has, unfortunately, been affected by stroke in some way. Beyond that, however, the book is lacking. Some have argued that My Stroke of Insight is a work of “neurosophy”– the attempt to “spiritualize” the brain. As the Dutch philosopher and geriatrician Bert Keizer writes, “the neurosophist drags neurological concepts into a context that has nothing to do with neurology. You might say that in this activity neurons are taken to church, where they have no business.” Keizer also points out that Taylor oversimplifies the “left-brain, right-brain” divide (Keizer 2009). As Daniel Voyer, a professor of psychology at the University of New Brunswick notes, “neuroimaging research suggests that we use structures in both cerebral hemispheres to perform most activities,” (Voyer 2015). While it is true that skills like language and motor control reside in certain parts of the brain, “softer skills” and personality traits like rationality are not exclusive to a particular hemisphere. Robert Shmerling, a professor at Harvard Medical School, writes that a “CT scan, MRI scan, or even an autopsy on the brain of a mathematician and… an artist” would yield little difference in neuroanatomy (Shmerling 2019).
Nonetheless, My Stroke of Insight is a fascinating contribution to the world of medical humanities– warts and all. The marriage of philosophy and neuroscience is attractive, though Taylor fails to do either subject justice. My Stroke of Insight provides a stunning, first-person account of the horrors of stroke– but nothing more.