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by Sylvain Comeau

Most people can point to personal reasons for their career choices, but for Harvard brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor, fresh inspiration came in the form of a recent, life-threatening episode. Last December, she suffered a stroke that wiped out most of her memory and left her incapacitated for months.

"After an hour and a half of having a pounding headache behind my left eye, my right arm went totally dead. As a neuroscientist, I instantly knew I was having a stroke. My very next thought was, 'Wow, this is so cool.'"

For Taylor, who delivered the fourth annual John Hans Low-Beer Memorial Lecture on September 25, her stroke was more than a personal crisis. It was an opportunity for greater understanding of her life's work.

"How many neuroscientists have an opportunity like that?" she said. "I told myself, 'Remember what this feels like.' It felt like I was in a room full of filing cabinets which represent the storage capacity of the brain, but it seemed like all the files were closed."

Taylor survived that harrowing experience, which only added to her original motivation for choosing brain research: her brother suffers from schizophrenia. But long before her brother was diagnosed with the disorder, Taylor knew he was different.

"Ever since I was a child, I had known that my brother was very different in the way he perceived the world around him, and in the way he chose to interact with it. I became fascinated with the human brain."

Taylor explained that schizophrenics have a neurological defect in the way that their nervous systems process information coming in from the senses.

"In order for any two individuals to communicate with one another, we have to share a certain amount of common reality. We have to bring in virtually the same information from the external environment. But there are individuals who do not process information the same way."

Most research on mental illness is centred on the brain's limbic system, she said, which places an affect or a feeling on the sensory information coming in. All the environmental stimuli coming in are processed by the limbic system before they reach a higher level of cognitive function. With schizophrenics and people with many other mental illnesses, there is less coordination between the limbic system and those higher functions.

"In order to make a rational decision, you need an understanding between that which you think and that which you feel. One of the key elements in severe mental illness is a lack of cohesiveness between the two, which increases the amount of stress that the body has to endure. Ultimately, that leads to some type of breakdown."

She believes that the emotional level of the brain takes precedence over the higher cognitive functions. Or, as she puts it, "human beings are feeling creatures that think, instead of thinking creatures that feel."

Taylor, very much a feeling creature herself, says that the emotional weight assigned to sensory input (what could be called the power of association) lends meaning to what would otherwise be mere data or information.

"Association brings meaning into our lives," she said. "That was the most important insight I got from my stroke. After my stroke, no two thoughts were connected. I had to wait and wait for anything to make any sense. I was completely detached, and everything was its own separate thing, with no connections between them."

The connections she formed with her caregivers helped pull her through.

"It was so painful and so hard to re-engage [with reality] that if there was no one out there who cared, there was no reason to come back. But I had a doctor who didn't mind touching my shoulder, and getting in my face and talking to me. I couldn't understand anything he said, but I understood that he cared about my recovery. And that made me care about coming back."

The lecture was sponsored by AMI-Quebec and Concordia's Department of Psychology.

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