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Friday math movie: How it feels to have a stroke

By Murray Bourne, 02 Feb 2012

Jill Bolte Taylor is a neuroanatomist, which means she studies the anatomy and workings of the brain and the rest of the nervous system.

She had a massive stroke at age 37, and had the unenviable ability to analyze what was going on in her own brain during the traumatic event.

She wrote a book about it all, aptly named My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey. I really enjoyed the book on several levels. When your language abilities are severely impaired, other things take on greater importance. For example, she reported how much the body language of a person spoke very loudly, and small kindnesses were hugely important.

She described one scene where the doctors and nurses treated her as a piece of meat, while one nurse actually looked into Taylor's eyes and spoke gently. I thought this has so many implications for teaching. Our "aura" in the classroom has profound effects on many students, and can make such a difference to the atmosphere of the room.

Another interesting aspect of the book was how the meaning of symbols (letters and numbers) became messed up after her stroke. She wasn't even able to call the ambulance, but did manage to call her office, most likely due to a "kinesthetic" memory. That is, we can remember where numbers are on a keypad, without actually remembering the actual numbers, or what they mean.

Once again I thought that has interesting implications for learning math, especially for those students who really struggle with the symbolism.

There are all sorts of insights we get about brain hemispheres, learning - and forgetting - in this story.

Here's Taylor speaking at TED. At the time of writing, it's been viewed by 1.7 million people.

She also appeared (I guess inevitably) on Oprah. There's a ballet based on the story and a movie in the works, too.

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