Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor flew in to New York for the shoot of the chorus’s new mini-documentary, Of Two Minds, about the creation of the choral/orchestral work Fifty Million Molecular Geniuses. Jeanne Wikler interviewed her.
Dr. Taylor exudes a quiet sparkle. Picking her up at LaGuardia Airport for the video shoot the next day, I couldn’t mistake her amongst the crowd of departing passengers: tall and slim, with long, flowing white-blonde hair, a generous smile and arms stretched out for a hug. She showed no trace of fatigue even though she had flown across the country and back twice that week. She will turn sixty on the weekend of May 3rd, when the work, Fifty Trillion Molecular Geniuses, has its world premiere in Carnegie Hall.
After checking her into her hotel, we sat in the café downstairs for a chat. Despite her fame and celebrity – her 2008 book was a New York Times Best Seller, her TED Talk the first ever to go viral, and she was listed that year by TIME Magazine as one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World” – she has a modest, unpretentious manner and the midwestern accent of her hometown, Bloomington, Indiana.
Jill Bolte Taylor: I’m so excited at the idea of celebrating my 60th birthday with a work of art based on my words, and in Carnegie Hall, no less! I’ve actually never been there before. When I turned 50, I had a huge party with all my friends, but I didn’t want to do that again this time. I thought I’d just spend my birthday on my boat, alone with God. And my dog.
Jeanne Wikler: How did you react when the request from the twin composers Brad and Doug Balliett came in, to use your book and TED Talk as a basis for a choral work featuring The Cecilia Chorus of New York?
Taylor: I was thrilled. So many people have responded in so many different ways, and several people have approached me with ideas for an opera or a ballet, and now this musical piece. It thrills my soul that it means enough for people to invest their time and energy and expertise into bringing my words into a more artistic realm. Tomorrow at the video shoot I get to meet The Balliett Brothers for the first time. I’m so excited!
Dr. Taylor—or Dr. Jill, as she is often called—is a Harvard-trained neuroscientist specialized in the anatomy of the brain. Waking up one morning to go to work at the Harvard Brain Bank when she was 37, she experienced a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. Within four hours she lost the ability to walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life. But by harnessing the powers of her uninjured ‘right brain’ she was able to call for help, and to understand and indicate what she needed to completely recover, though it took her eight years. For the next two years she was deluged by calls for help and advice by stroke survivors and caregivers. So she delivered a TED Talk (My Stroke of Insight), explaining in both scientific and personal detail what had happened to her and how she was able to survive, holding up a human brain for illustrative purposes. The Penguin publication of her book followed quickly thereafter. Since then, she has become a much sought-after speaker and is now working on a second book.
Wikler: Is your upcoming book aimed at stroke survivors?
Taylor: No, the first book was written for that population. My new book, and the talks I give these days, are more about the anatomy of the brain in general, and specifically about the qualities of the left and right hemispheres, how they complement each other, how they work together and how you can actually use the two sides of your brain separately. This is information everyone can use, whether you’re recovering from a brain injury or just seeking more balance in your life. The better you understand the brain, the better you can get it to do what you want it to do.
Wikler: How did you, a serious scientist, deal with the celebrity and publicity that followed the TED Talk and the publication of your first book? Oprah featured you on her SuperSoul program and has talked about what an inspiration you are to her. You were interviewed by Charlie Rose, by Terry Gross in her NPR program Fresh Air, you were invited to speak all around the world, and you still are.
Taylor: It was like a tsunami of energy. Especially for those first couple of years, the attention of the whole world seemed to be on Jill Bolte Taylor with a level of reverence that I didn’t know we held for one another. Sharing my experience seemed to break down all boundaries between us as people; you can’t imagine how many hugs I got from strangers around the world! It was beautiful. But it was exhausting. That’s when I bought the boat.
Wikler: Where is it and what do you do there?
Taylor: It’s an 80-foot riverboat moored in a marina in Lake Cumberland, Kentucky. That’s about a four-hour drive from Bloomington. I write there, but I also have a couple of studios in it, one for stone carving, and one for making stained glass. I’ve made two stained glass brains. What I also do there, and anywhere as much as possible, is sleep. We all need more sleep. Sleep helped me recover from my stroke, and it’s the antidote for so many other things. Sleep is like the garbage cleaners – they come out at night and clear out all the waste in our brains.
Wikler: Are you bringing anyone to the Carnegie Hall concert on May 3rd?
Taylor: Are you kidding? About forty of my friends from all walks of my life have said they’re coming! When Mark Shapiro told me that the entire audience would be singing “Happy Birthday” to me, I was so deeply touched, I cried. It was like a vote of confidence from the universe that I’ve done a good job with my 60 years, and that I should keep going. And I will.
BIOGRAPHY: Jill Bolte Taylor
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor is a Harvard-trained and published neuroanatomist. In 1996, a blood vessel exploded in the left half of her brain and over the course of four hours she watched her mind completely deteriorate until she could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life. It took eight years for her to completely recover all function. In 2008, Dr. Taylor gave the first TED Talk that ever went viral, she was the premier guest on Oprah’s SuperSoul series, and she was named as one of TIME Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World.” Her memoir, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, spent 17 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list and is translated in over 30 languages. Dr. Taylor is committed to educating the public about neuroplasticity and the ability of the brain to recover from stroke or brain trauma. She is a highly sought-after public speaker who travels the world, and she uses her not-for-profit organization, Jill Bolte Taylor BRAINS, to forward her mission. Fore more about Jill Bolte Taylor, visit http://drjilltaylor.com/about.html.