Friday, October 23, 2009

Different Strokes: A Book Review

by Drew Martin

Through my writings at the Museum of Peripheral Art I have primarily addressed the visual arts because my education and lifelong interests are in the arts but I would like to cast a bigger net to incorporate my graduate work and matured/broader interests: Media Studies, which incorporates the arts, film, literature, television, radio and the Internet. My comments will not be typical of film and book reviews because they reach beyond the specific medium with an interdisciplinary scope. (See earlier posting on Synesthetic Interpretations comparing Stanley Kubrick's treatment of Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey)

I just finished reading My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D. (published by Viking, 2006). It is the most open and beautiful writing I have ever read. The beauty is not in the craft, style or structure. I even winced a couple times at the grammar ("self-medicating themselves")....but this is the closest I have come to feeling befriended by a book and its author without the trappings of cynicism or unhealthy and needy emotions. Typically, I would feel a slight pang of sadness upon completing such a thoughtful book but it is so liberating that one can only walk away from it feeling content and one with this world.

This short book (fewer than 200 pages) is really two books. The first part professionally/academically details the debilitation and recovery from a stroke by the author, a neuroanatomist.

"The type of stroke I experienced was a severe hemorrhage in the left hemisphere of my brain due to an undiagnosed AVM (arterovenous malformation). On the morning of the stroke, this massive hemorrhage rendered me so completely disabled that I describe myself as an infant in a woman's body. Two and a half weeks after the stroke, I underwent major surgery to remove a golf ball-sized blood clot that was obstructing my brain's ability to transmit information."

The second section is a kind of self-help guide to one's mind, emotions and relationships (with people, food, music and the universe).

"...I learned that I had the power to choose whether to hook into a feeling and prolong its presence in my body, or just let it quickly flow right out of me. I made my decisions based upon how things felt inside. There were certain emotions like anger, frustration or fear that felt uncomfortable when they surged through my body. So I told my brain that I didn't like that feeling and didn't want to hook into those neural loops. I learned that I could use my left brain and tell it what I wanted and I didn't want. Upon this realization, I knew I would never return to the personality I had been before. I suddenly had much more to say about how I felt and for how long, and I was adamantly opposed to reactivating old painful emotional circuits."

I do not think Bolte consciously/cleverly set up a lobed book, divided left then right-brain, respectively. It was just a simple way for her to write: tell the facts, then say what she learned. The account of the stroke is fascinating and a must-read for everyone because it takes a compassionate look at an injured mind and is relevant to anyone with a friend or relative with special needs and is just as helpful for the average passerby to rethink the state of someone he or she pities in public. The second part is worthy of its quotes from Einstein and Gandhi because it deconstructs the thinking of such intensely intelligent humans. If there is a fault to the book, it is that it caters to people like me, severely right-brained. I imagine many sections are quickly dismissed by more analytical people, but Bolte guides the reader so gently into her calm, quiet world and establishes that we are all a blood clot away from her experience so she is able to disarm the most suspicious readers. With this approach she naturally uses a lead-in that parallels our engagement with her and her story/book.

Bolte's recovery is a matter of will and discipline but is also an act of pure love by her mother, who reteaches her new (37 year old) infant how to count, read, walk, talk and think. It is an account as touching and astonishing as Helen Keller and "The Miracle Worker". When I finished reading, I thought to myself "Now there's a book one certainly cannot turn into a film" but that just brought to mind Julian Schnabel's painterly The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which turns Jean-Dominique Bauby's stroke and resulting locked-
in syndrome into a narrated 'art' movie.

It would be a great pity to offer us anything other than Bolte's deep and abstract inner thoughts. A book is personal and contemplative and in this form Bolte wraps the reader in her insight like a plush blanket.

Though Bolte occasionally lingers, she is not exhaustive and I often wished she would go off on more adventurous tangents to entertain the thoughts she initiates. I would, for example, like her to explore in greater detail the feeling of creating art and how one experiences viewing art. I would like to think that the arts have the ability to stimulate the parts of the brain in the audience from which the creators work from in order to share joy, creativity and love...and, in doing so have the ability to develop that part of the brain, which would then override more primal instincts.

Bolte explains that before recovering from the stroke, she could not write or read (a left brain activity) but she was able to type on a computer because it is a shared, ambidextrous action using both sides of her brain. Does this mean that writing by hand and typing with both hands access different thoughts? Truman Capote once commented that Jack Kerouac's On The Road was not writing but typing. While this quip illustrates Marshall McLuhan's 'the medium is the message,' Bolte seems to be suggesting that the message is already influenced by the medium on a neurological level even before it is expressed through the medium. Is the ambidextrous, keyboard-ready mind simply working from a less analytical part of the brain than the hand-writing mind, which generated wonders such as the Declaration of Independence?

I started missing the effect of Bolte's written kindness the morning after completing it. The influence wore off too quickly. Bolte's magic is not a removed, external beauty but one that flows within you. The book is not plot driven or a mystery, reduced to simple facts and conclusions. It is experiential and it reminds me that even while her story is told through a book, the book is really just paper and ink that stores the energy of her mind and the content of her thoughts.