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Stroke Smart Magazine

Fall 2009

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Watch and Relearn
Teach Me by Stepping Back to Move Ahead

By Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor

When brain cells are traumatized they no longer process information in a normal way. When I had my stroke, my brain’s ability to process new information was very slow and I needed people to slow their energy down, treat me gently and not be in a rush. If those around me were in a hurry, I would undoubtedly fail at my efforts, whether I was learning to walk or trying to learn to feed myself again.

My mother kept saying to me, “What is the first thing a baby does with anything you give it?” and the answer, of course, is that they put it in their mouth to feel it. It was obvious to her that in order for me to relearn about my environment, I would have to touch, smell and examine it. In addition, I learned best through the repeated movement of my body.

Part of our brain is designed to help us pay attention and when this area of our brain is not functioning properly, we cannot think about anything for more than a few moments. When my brain was wounded, it was very difficult for me to learn anything new. I needed my caregivers to show up 100 percent for me. I needed them to focus on the task and look me directly in the eye.

Some of my most successful learning occurred through a monkey-see monkey-do technique. Someone would perform a task, such as show me how to hold a fork, and I would try to copy that behavior. I needed my caregivers to break every task down into simple steps:

  • Getting my fingers to be flexible enough so they could grasp something as small and thin as a fork was step one.
  • Teaching me that the two ends of the fork were different and that there was a right side up position to the fork was step two.
  • Trying to balance something on the fork was extremely challenging for me. I learned that stabbing at my food seemed to be more successful.

The portion of my brain that had the ability to put information in order had stopped functioning. I could learn how to put my socks on and I could learn to put my shoes on, but I had no understanding that I was supposed to put my socks on before my shoes. The absence of linear thinking was a challenge for more than a month.

Since my brain was no longer capable of paying attention for longer than a few moments, it was very difficult for me to learn new material. I could learn, but my brain processed information slowly, much slower than normal, so that others often gave up on me because they did not realize that I was actually trying. I needed my caregivers to watch closely to see what I could do and what obstacles were in the way of my success.


Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor was young, healthy brain scientist at Harvard Medical School when she suffered a devastating stroke. After eight years of dedicated work, Taylor is completely recovered and teaching at the medical school level. She is a powerful spokesperson for stroke survivors and brain recovery and has authored the national bestseller, My Stroke of Insight.



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National Stroke Association’s mission is to reduce the incidence and impact of stroke by developing compelling education and programs focused on prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and support for all impacted by stroke.

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