What Is it Like to Have a Stroke?


When you have a stroke your brain is starved of oxygen as a result of a haemorrhage (haemorrhaging stroke) or a blood clot (ischemic stroke). This then causes that area of the brain to cease to function and after four minutes without oxygen brain cells will begin to die which can often result in death, or in minor to major brain damage. While most people are aware of what causes a stroke though, most of us hope never to experience one first hand and so do not know what it actually feels like. However for those who do experience a stroke, it can often provide a highly interesting insight into the way the brain works and what life would be like without certain areas of it. Our brain dictates what we see and experience, and what we make of those experiences – so what would it be like from the inside to lose function in certain brain areas?

Everyone Is Different

The first thing to recognise is that we all are different and that everyone’s experience of stroke varies. People can have strokes of different intensities/severities and a mini stroke will have relatively very few symptoms. The severity and damage caused depends on the size and the duration of the clot/haemorrhage and if you are only briefly and locally starved of oxygen then this will be a ‘mini’ stroke that might not have obvious symptoms. However a more serious one can have a range of more extreme symptoms. Some people describe very severe pain in association with a serious stroke which is similar to a bad migraine, while others will describe it as painless.

At the same time the experiences people have vary wildly. The main reason for this is that the location of the problem in the brain will dictate which brain area is affected and thus which faculties are disrupted.

Losing Brain Areas

Essentially then, a stroke involves losing brain areas while the person is conscious and so this can mimic all kinds of brain damage. The person may lose their ability to recognise faces (prosopagnosia), or to understand language, to access their memory, or to speak. They might lose their ability to distinguish between space and objects, or they might lose their ability to recognise where they are in space. Of course they could also experience a whole range of these things or something else entirely. Often this will all come on progressively as they experience the stroke.

Common Symptoms

While anything can happen as a result of a stroke there are some common symptoms. One is a headache, though this is not necessarily present in all cases as mentioned. When the headache does occur it is described as being like a migraine.

Another is the loss of the ability to form sentences or numbers. This is often discovered when the person attempts to get help by contacting friends or telling them what is happening (or calling emergency services). Usually the individual will find themselves unable to recall the numbers they need to dial, or to concentrate long enough to write more than one at a time. When they speak, they may be able to think perfectly lucidly, but may find that they are unable to form words other than ‘gibberish’. This can be highly alarming for the person and the point at which they realise they are having a stroke rather than a migraine.

Another common symptom is loss of movement, either in one limb or down one side of the body. Victims describe not being able to make a simple movement such as moving their hand to their keyboard, or as being unable to move a whole side of their body. This might cause one side of their face to droopy too and onlookers will often describe them as looking ‘droopy’ as a result. This can also caused slurred speech.

Perception will often also be affected particularly in more serious cases. This might be something as simple as vision becoming blurred, but in more severe cases can mean that they see a kaleidoscope of colours and even hear music. Our brain has in it automatic ‘edge’ detectors that help us to see where edges are and thus outline objects – if this area or similar areas fail, then this can result in the images blurring into one and being very hard to make sense of.

Jill Bolte Taylor

A well known neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor has made a well known speech on the experience of having a stroke (after having one herself) at a TED conference which can be found on YouTube. This describes many of the symptoms above but describes a sense of freedom, peace and elation at viewing the world without the human lens we normally see it through. Parallels are drawn with the experience of meditating or using psychedelic drugs and achieving a kind of ‘enlightenment’ (also possibly a result of certain brain areas shutting down) and this at least is reassuring for those whose family members have suffered strokes.

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Christopher Jacoby

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Christopher Jacoby