With Neuroanatomist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor
WHAT YOU’LL LEARN
- Left Brain Versus Right Brain
- Experiencing Emotions In The Brain
- Learning To Manage Our Emotions
- Whole Brain Living
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor a Harvard trained and published neuroanatomist experienced a severe hemorrhage in the left hemisphere of her brain causing her to lose the ability to walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life in 1996. Her memoir, My Stroke of Insight, documenting her experience with stroke and eight-year recovery, spent 63 weeks on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list and is still routinely the #1 book about stroke on Amazon. Today, she’s here to talk with us about the differences in the left and right hemispheres of our brain, how they work together, and how we can choose whole-brain living.
Left Brain Versus Right Brain
“The left hemisphere has our language, and part of our language is to be able to communicate with each other in the outside world,” Dr. Bolte Taylor said. It also contains a group of cells that control your ego—your identity. A small group of cells in your left brain also help us understand boundaries. Dr. Bolte Taylor described it as, “Where I end, and where you begin.” The left brain really controls everything about how we communicate with the world.
The right brain has no boundaries, so it sees itself as big as the universe. It doesn’t have language, so it can’t communicate. But it does organize information. This is the part of your brain that’s able to look at a complete picture and decide what’s out of place. What piece of the puzzle doesn’t fit here. And it can decide things intuitively. “This is essentially the consciousness of any infant,” Dr. Bolte Taylor said. Their left brain hasn’t developed yet. They see the universe as one big ball of energy they’re interacting with.
“Any worry that we have about the past or the future is our left brain projecting anxiety or fear. Am I safe?” Dr. Bolte explained. So, if your newborn is crying and you feel overly anxious, that’s your left brain saying, “I want this to be different. I don’t like this. My child isn’t content.” That’s because the baby’s crying triggers your anxiety to alert you, and it can really produce anxiety because we never know how long it’s going to last. We also don’t know what the cause is, because an infant doesn’t’ have the language to talk to you. “The left hemisphere is the circulatory of anxiety while the right hemisphere is right here, right now,” Dr. Bolte Taylor said. The right brain is more exploratory. “We are very capable in the moment,” she said. We can trust that we’re going to show up.
Anxiety is an underestimation of our ability to cope in a moment. “We are supermoms in the present moment,” Dr. Bolte Taylor said.
When you’re scrolling through your Facebook feed, you may see a quiz that says, “Your answer choices will prove if you are right brained or left brained.” These quizzes are fun and there is some truth to them, but the real picture is much more complicated than that. Your language receptors are in the left hemisphere of your brain and allow you to decode the words people say to you. “You want two eggs?” Each of these words are symbols. Two is two individual one units and eggs is a protein based food. Your left brain hears the question and can answer, “Yes,” or “No.”
But your right brain reads the facial expressions and vocal intonations of the speaker. It knows the difference between, “You want two eggs?” and “You want two eggs?” So, both hemispheres are constantly working together.
However, our right brain and left brain represent very different values, and some of us are very skewed to one side of the others. Dr. Bolte Taylor used that if you posed the question “What do you want to do for the next hour?” to different people, you’d get very different responses. An accountant might start working out math problems or play a game of Sudoku. But someone skewed more to the value of the left brain might go for a walk in the park, paint a picture, or write a book. So, these quizzes that promise to let you know what side of your brain you rely on more have some validity, but you use both sides of your brain routinely.
The circuits we use most often become automatic. “We can train our right brain or left brain to become more habitual,” Dr. Bolte Taylor said. Being aware of how our brain works is empowering though, and it might help us choose the best coping skills for us. Some people are very language based and affirming statements and feeling “heard” might help them the most. Others may get more out of visualization exercises.
Experiencing Emotions In The Brain
Your brain experiences emotions for about 90 seconds. That’s all! A stimulation response triggers the brain to produce chemicals—your toddler flops in the floor and screams like she’s being murdered, a neuron dumps more adrenaline into your brain triggering anger—that floods through you and flush out of you in the course of 90 seconds. “I can imagine if I’m managing children, and I’ve reached the point where I’m about to blow—no!” Dr. Bolte Taylor explained. “You don’t have to let it out.” You can look at your watch and know that in 90 seconds that feeling is going to be gone. It’s possible to stay mad or sad longer than that, but it’s no longer an automatic response. What’s happening in that case is we’re remembering or thinking about the situation, and the response is retriggered. What keeps that anger alive is the story we tell ourselves about the incident and how we frame it in our memories.
When we’re experiencing intense emotions like anger or sadness after the fact, it’s because our entire brain is focused on the spot where that adrenaline was dropped, and the best way out of it is to realize there are other parts of your brain you can use and try to reactivate some of those other parts. One of the easiest ways to do this is to not engage with the stimuli but instead just observe. If our toddler is flopping around the floor like a fish, instead of focusing on how we just cleaned the floor and she’s drooling unchewed Pop-Tart all over it, or how she’s probably going to hit her head and the ER bill is going to be a thousand bucks, we can observe the flopping skills. Look at how talented she is. “My kid would make a good fish!” Or “With that kind of flexibility, she’s headed for the Olympics.”
And if you can think about what the toddler’s brain is doing during the floppy fit, that might help. Is the child actually trying to poke you? Or has their little brain been triggered? And if so, how much control do they actually have over it?
Empowered Learning To Manage Our Emotions
If rage is your go to emotion, the first step is to want to rage less. There has to be a desire to change it. The second step is to become aware of when I’m becoming triggered. I’m becoming triggered, because I don’t feel safe. And I don’t feel safe, because I’m not having my needs met.
When you get triggered and your stress level has reached capacity, take a pause. Don’t let the anger out and look at your clock. Pay attention to how that rage feels in your body, and what it feels like when the 90 seconds is over and the initial response has had time to subside. If you pause and don’t engage in the rage and just observe it, once the physiological response is over, you will feel very powerful. And then next time you’re in a similar situation, you may not even get ragey. You may be able to recognize the feeling and immediately activate a different part of your brain.
Think about your brain as a cantaloupe. Draw a line through the center of the melon. Now you have your left hemisphere and right hemisphere. But you can draw a line through the center of each hemisphere, because they both contain two parts. The inside pieces—or the pieces close to that first center line we drew through the cantaloupe—both control emotions. And outside of each emotional piece is thinking tissue.
Dr. Bolte Taylor referred to each of these regions as a character. Left brain thinking tissue is Character 1, and the left brain emotional center—your limbic system—is Character 2. The right brain emotional center is Character 3, and right brain thinking tissue is Character 4. That initial triggered response is likely to be in Character 2, but when the 90 seconds of the automatic response is over, we can all chose to be another Character. Character 2 is aggravated, but we can become Characters 1, 3 or 4.
Character 1 is a go-getter. It categorizes, organizes, and it’s ready to move. Character 2 is very aware of timelines. It worries about the past and the future, and it’s where all anxiety comes from. Character 2 is the piece of us that gets overwhelmed and worries about our performance and worth. “Character 2 is all about, ‘how do I feel about what’s going in the external world?’” Dr. Bolte Taylor said. Character 3 is the emotional part of the right hemisphere. It lives in the moment. Right here, right now. Character 3 is curious, interested, innovative, and creative. And this is where children live! Character 3 wants to play and connect just like a kid. Children don’t have a developed left hemisphere. You have to teach them right from wrong. “Character 4 is the thinking tissue of the right brain,” Dr. Bolte Taylor explained. It’s consciousness that lives inside every single one of our cells. It’s the part of us that says, “I’m connected to the universe, and we are the consciousness of the universe.” You can call it God, a higher power, or whatever works for your beliefs.
Those are the four different characters, so if I move into stress with Character 2, I can follow that up with Character 1. “Am I safe? Is everyone safe? I’m safe. Let’s ride this 90 seconds out.” And then we can bring Character 3 in and just observe that flailing child. They’re actually getting a good work out, and they’re downloading information to their little brain. This fit is part of their development.
In a post-partum period, Character 1 can be overactive. There is a tiny helpless life we’re responsible for. It only makes sense that Character 1 wants to make sure we’re doing everything right. And this can trigger Character 2. When we’re stuck in Character 1 or 2, the things that will help us move out of that zone is to make a conscious decision to allow Character 3 to take over. We need to pause and observe our worries and fears and just become curious. But the other thing that allows us to get out of Character 1 and 2 is sleep. Our brain is full of tiny neurons who eat and create waste. When we sleep, the garbage truck comes through and clears all the waste out. If we’re not allowing ourselves that rest period—which can be hard with a newborn—we’re not getting that waste cleared out of our brain. Sleep is critical for us to be able to flush everything out.
The sleep cycle goes in an order. First we hit light sleep and we’ll eventually hit REM sleep which is the deep sleep where we dream. From REM we move into a lighter sleep and either wake up or hit REM again. “Studies have shown that if we don’t have enough REM sleep, we actually become psychotic,” Dr. Bolte Taylor said. What that means at the level of our brain is that we have chaos. We can’t make sense of the information coming through, because our biological machine is down without sleep.
Whole Brain Living
Characters 2 and 3 never mature, but Characters 1 and 4 do. Character 1 can come in and make sure we come up with a coping mechanism. “Instead of yelling at you, I’m locking myself in your dad’s office, because it has a door and come back when I’m happy.”
There are going to be moments when I need all 4 characters to huddle up. Character 2 can say, “I want to yell.” Character 1 says, “We’re safe. We’re good.” Character 4 says, “We’re all here. Don’t worry. We’re connected. We’ve all got your back.” And character 3 just watches the moment and makes observations.
There is a place for each character, but 2 raging Character 2s in conflict will never find a resolution. If we’re going to be the parent, it can require stepping back and saying my kid is in rage. I’ve got to find another way to deal with this, and maybe bring in Character 1 to find a resolution or Character 3 to just become curious about the situation.
Hopefully the awareness of your brain characters and how they function help you cope the next time you experience a tantruming toddler.
But if you feel like you still need more resources, you can check out the Mommy Rage Workshop. It’s loaded with information.
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor is a Harvard trained and published neuroanatomist. In 1996 she experienced a severe hemorrhage in the left hemisphere of her brain causing her to lose the ability to walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life. Dr. Taylor is a dynamic teacher and public speaker who loves educating all age groups, academic levels, as well as corporations about the beauty of our human brain and its ability to recover from trauma. In 2008 she gave the first TED talk that ever went viral on the Internet, which now has well over 26 million views. Also in 2008, Dr. Taylor was chosen as one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” and was the premiere guest on Oprah Winfrey’s “Soul Series” webcast.