About Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor is a neuroanatomist and the New York Times best-selling author of My Stroke of Insight, a book telling the story of what she learned when she had a severe stroke in 1996. She is a dynamic teacher and public speaker and enjoys educating all age groups, academic levels, and corporations about the beauty of our brain. I was thrilled to interview her after reading her new book, Whole Brain Living: the Anatomy of Choice and the Four Characters That Drive Our Life.

Rob Schware: Jill, greetings. Why don’t we start with you sharing what happened to you on December 10, 1996 when you were 37 years old?

Jill Bolte Taylor: I was a brain scientist at Harvard Medical School teaching and researching how our brain creates our perception of reality. I was interested in this because I have a brother who was diagnosed with the brain disorder schizophrenia. On December 10, 1996, I woke up to discover that I had a brain disorder of my own. I was having a major hemorrhage in the left hemisphere of my brain, so over the course of four hours, I watched all the functions of my left brain go off-line. When I woke up later that afternoon, I could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of my life. By anyone’s standard, I had become an infant in a woman’s body, yet I remained conscious. What I gained through this experience was a deep understanding of the functions and values of the left brain versus the functions and values of the right brain.

Rob: In a nutshell, please describe what you learned about our brains.

Jill: When my left brain went offline, I didn’t lose just skills–I lost parts of my personality. The part of me that is located in the Left Thinking part of my brain is my rational, organized, categorizing type-A personality–my Left Thinking Character 1. This part of me has language, it cares about the external world and my relationship with it. This part uses language to communicate and likes to control people, places, and things. It defines what is right/wrong and what is good/bad. It is the home of my stress circuitry. The goal of my Left Thinking Character 1 is to help me fit into the societal norm.

On the morning of the stroke, I also lost the Left Emotional Character 2 part of my brain. This is the part of my brain that stored all of the emotional pain from my past. It is also where our craving for addiction is stored. I have to say that it was an absolute delight to lose 37 years of emotional baggage. I also lost the little group of cells that made up my ego center–the part of my brain that defined me as an individual. This part of my Character 2 perceived myself to be separate from all of the energy around me.

On the morning of the stroke, I lost both of my left brain Characters (1 and 2), but I gained a real, clear awareness of my Right Emotional Character 3 and my Right Thinking Character 4. The right brain exists completely in the present moment, meaning there is no awareness of past or future. I no longer exist as an individual because that requires the ego center cells of my left brain. Our Right Emotional Character 3 is experiential and completely focused on what it feels like to be right here right now. What does it feel like to have these glasses on my face? What does the temperature or level of humidity in the air feel like against my skin right here right now? So instead of being emotional like my left brain Character 2, my Character 3 right brain is experiential. The Right Thinking part of my brain exists in the consciousness of all that is–without judgment. Character 4 is simply filled with intense gratitude that I exist at all, and at the core of my being is a sense of deep inner peace.

Thanks to this experience with a stroke, I had the chance to truly understand what each of our two brain hemispheres contributes to our overall perception of reality and how these two parts of our brain differ in what they value. The right hemisphere cares about the collective whole of the WE because there is no ME in the right brain. The left brain filters everything through ME the individual, so its focus is naturally about ME and MINE.

Rob: Your new book Whole Brain Living is about helping us find and continuously work on our four characters, right?

Jill: Exactly. Once we know each of these four characters inside of ourselves, and we know that we have the ability to choose which one we want to embody at any moment, then we can truly own our power as human beings. Rather than reacting to the world around us, we can choose our response instead. This is true personal freedom.

Rob: How do we get from our Character 1, which is our logical, rational mind (I call my Character 1 “Sergeant”) to our Character 4’s experience of deep inner peace?

Jill: First, if we are willing to truly get to know each of these four characters, then we can train ourselves to embody any of them at any moment. The more aware I become of my own four characters, then I can train myself to do what I call the BRAIN Huddle. My brain’s team is made up of my four characters, and during the BRAIN Huddle, I am inviting all four of my characters to come into the present moment at the same time. Together they have the power to choose at a conscious level which part of me (which one of them) should come out in the next moment. When I know my Character 1 really well–where it hangs out, what it’s good at, who it gets along with, who avoids that part of me, etcetera– then I become aware of what it truly feels like to be that part of me. The same is true for my other characters. We can become so familiar with each one that we can train ourselves to essentially jump out of one character into another with minimal effort.

There are a lot of different tools we can use to help us make this shift, and I know that you, Rob, use yoga. Could you share with us the process you use to shift your characters through yoga?

Rob: Yoga helps me clear out emotional blockages. It helps me see what I need to see, usually on the mat, and in that process, I feel a deepening sense of connectedness to myself. As my practice has developed, I’ve noticed an increased connection with my community, my friends, and my family. I’ve also gained a greater connection with nature.

Jill: I love that you began your description with the idea that your emotions are blocked. What does that actually feel like?

Rob: I feel stuck.

Jill: What is the stuck?

Rob: Oftentimes I’m preoccupied with some issue that I have to address during the day or some issue in a relationship. I feel the need to move energy.

Jill: So you are intellectually engaged with the processing of data, is that correct?

Rob: Yes.

Jill: So, let’s say that is exactly what the left brain does. Our Characters 1 and 2 are busy taking in a ton of information and processing that data relative to you as an individual. We can feel overwhelmed, confused, stressed out, or emotionally blocked. Our right brain flushes through those details by bringing our minds into the present moment. In the right here right now, we feel refreshed rather than bogged down by the details of our left brain monkey mind. Stepping out of our stress circuitry in this way creates a pause in the push, push, push routine of our noisy left brain in a way that brings us back to a sense of peacefulness.

Rob: A typical yoga class entails a series of postures, some breath work, and meditation. How does Whole Brain Living develop a friendly relationship with one’s body?

Jill: The primary relationship between the body and the brain is through our right hemisphere. The characters in our right brain, which are right here right now, are at peace. Because our left brain is our stress circuitry, a natural part of that is our judgment of self and others. As you move into poses, you move with a purposeful intention of stepping out of all those stuck details of your stressful left brain circuitry. When you know your four characters, you have the power to rapidly step out of your stress into your deep inner joy because you have trained yourself to do that. Using yoga poses as a tool to help you get there is a whole brainer.

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