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Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor is a Harvard-trained and published neuroanatomist whose research specialized in understanding how our brain creates our perception of reality. She was interested in this subject because[…]
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Most people would not see having a stroke as exciting. But most people aren’t Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard-trained neuroanatomist, New York Times bestselling author and viral TED Talk speaker.

As a medical professional, brains are her obsession – and there’s nothing dry or clinical in the way she describes them. Instead, her outlook on the complex organ is almost poetic, and she views consciousness as not just a cognitive process but as a beautiful connection to the universe.

We sat down with Dr. Jill to discover how brains operate, how she recovered from a near-death experience and how we can begin to understand (and control) what’s really going on in there.

The fascination begins

Why did the Kentucky-born Dr. Jill research the brain out of all the human organs? Like many of us, her career was inspired by family. “I grew up to study the brain because I have a brother who’s been diagnosed with schizophrenia,” says Dr. Jill, who noticed early on in life that she and her sibling perceived the world very differently. “My focus is how does our brain create our perception of reality.” 

Her extensive research in neuroanatomy led her to reveal the truth behind a popular myth: our emotional and logical hemispheres are not as simple as black and white (or left and right). Both hemispheres actually possess one logical region and one emotional region.

The left-thinking region deals with logic, structure and organization, while also being responsible for our sense of self. The left-emotional side gives us the ability to mentally time travel: to position our sense of self within past traumas and triumphs, as well as future situations. 

Similarly, our right-emotional side deals with time but only in the present. Finally, our right-thinking region takes our present situation and expands it to the world around us. It shows us how surreal it is to exist in this moment, here and now.

Studying her own brain

One December morning in 1996, Dr. Jill’s life and perception of reality changed forever. “My right arm was paralyzed, a warning sign of stroke,” she remembers. “My brain said, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m having a stroke. I’m having a stroke!’ And then another part of my brain said, ‘Wow, this is so cool. I’m having a stroke!’”

Caught between the panic of a medical emergency and the rare opportunity of researching her brain during a stroke, Dr. Jill oscillated between the two hemispheres as she dipped in and out of consciousness on her way to the hospital.

Dr. Jill woke up four hours later. The only problem was, it wasn’t really her who woke up. “The left hemisphere was completely shut down. I didn’t know where I began and where I ended,” she says. “Jill Bolte Taylor died that day.”

During this difficult time, Dr. Jill had an epiphany after being flooded with intense emotion. With only her right hemisphere online, she could only experience a surreal feeling of interconnectedness. While most modern Western cultures are preoccupied with who we are against other people, she concluded that we should instead focus on who we are in relation to other people and recognize how amazing it is to be present with everyone else in this same moment.

Taking control of your brain

It took a major hemorrhage (which took eight years to recover from) for Dr. Jill to achieve this outlook, but she says now it’s as simple as keeping an open mind and knowing when to press play and when to press pause. For example, in tense situations, it can be beneficial to take the time to figure out if our left-thinking hemisphere is working alone; making us unnecessarily retaliatory towards someone else. 

According to Dr. Jill, there are “four yous” that live within us. The key to understanding these individual personalities is learning to take a breath and figure out which “you” is at the control panel. 

“When we get that streamlined activity between the two thinking parts of our brain and the two emotional parts of our brain, the world becomes healthier,” she says.

We spoke to Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor for The Science of Perception Box, a Big Think interview series created in partnership with Unlikely Collaborators. As a creative non-profit organization, they’re on a mission to help people challenge their perceptions and expand their thinking. This series dives into the science behind our thought patterns. Watch Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s full interview above, and visit Perception Box to see more in this series.

DR. JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: Nothing brings me more joy than helping people better understand the tool they have to live their life on purpose.

We have this magnificent brain, and it has different predictable parts, and the better we get to know those different parts, then we have more power over who and how we wanna be in any moment.

The brain does not have to be such a mystery. We can actually understand it, differentiate ourselves, and then behave in ways that bring us less anxiety and more peace.

It thrills me. I love brains.

I am Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. I'm a neuroanatomist, and the author of "My Stroke of Insight," and "Whole Brain Living."

I'm a neuroanatomist. I study the anatomy of the brain, so I can visualize in my brain the circuits of how all the information comes in in order for me to be able to have a perception of reality.

When we look at the human brain, it has emotional tissue in the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere, and it has thinking tissue in both the right hemisphere and in the left hemisphere.

So we end up with these four very specific groups of cells, modules of cells, that result in very specific skill sets, resulting in very specific personalities that we all exhibit.

So we have left thinking that is structured and organized, and it's what we call our rational thinking brain. It categorizes and organizes, it has language, the ability to create sound, and then another group of cells places meaning on top of that.

I know when I'm being analytical and I'm being structured and organized and I'm planning things for the future, or I'm counting one plus one equals two- I know that that's my left thinking portion of my brain.

The left emotional part of our brain has miraculously stepped out of the present-moment consciousness and given us the ability to remember things from our past or to project ideas into the future.

Now, with that, I can create an individuation as well as the linearity across time. And now because I have linearity across time, I can learn from my past experiences.

The right emotional part of my brain is then, 'How does it feel to be in my body in the present moment?' What does it feel like when I dive into the water and I feel the pressure push against my body? What does it feel like to feel water as wet?

I'm not on the clock. I'm lost in the flow. I've got this excitement, and I have a level of curiosity.

And then my right thinking tissue is simply the consciousness of me, big as the Universe, connected to all that is. And this immense sense of gratitude that I exist at all. "Oh my gosh, I'm alive!"

We are living creatures made up of these magnificent cells. And there's an awe and a wonder, and this deep sense of gratitude.

Once you start realizing the four different characters inside of yourself and being able to recognize those in others, you can't not see it anymore.

And once you understand it, it's like, "I have so much more power over what's going on inside of my brain than anybody ever taught me, wow!" It's beautiful.

So I grew up to study the brain because I have a brother who's diagnosed with a brain disorder, schizophrenia. So my focus was on, how does our brain create our perception of reality? Because my brother's perception of reality was so different from mine.

And so I was teaching and performing research at Harvard Medical School, and at the age of 37, I woke up one morning and I had a major hemorrhage happening in the left hemisphere of my brain.

My brain says, 'Oh my gosh, I'm having a stroke. I'm having a stroke!' And then another part of my brain is saying, 'Wow, this is so cool, I'm having a stroke! How many brain scientists had the opportunity to study their own brain from the inside out like this?'

And then when I awoke later that afternoon, the left hemisphere was completely shut down. I no longer had me, the individual. I didn't know where I began and where I ended. Jill Bolte Taylor died that day.

And I was literally laying in this bed, and felt like a ton of lead in the present moment. And when you're in the right here, right now, and you have this expansive openness, big as the Universe experience, then you see how everything is interrelated and energetically impacted.

So I still had those portions of my brain functioning, but me, the individual, I was gone.

And we really had no idea even following surgery what I would get back or if I would have any ability to have any recognition or recollection of the identity that I had had for 37 years.

So what the stroke gave me was this new introduction to the depth of these emotions.

However, my sadness, my grief, grief is a whole body, whole envelopment, and it takes you to your knees, and it takes you to the floor, and it just flood with this incredible emotion, and 'Wow, I feel this because I loved, this is the beauty of being alive!'

But it's not designed to be a lifestyle; it's designed to be information that I can then learn from and hold onto, and find meaning in my world.

The emotions, the power of the emotions are so beautiful, so rich, so everything, that without 'em, we would be one plus one equals two, and who really cares?

It took eight years for me to completely recover all function.

I knew that I had completely recovered when that organizational part of me came back online and said, "Now I wanna be the boss again." And the rest of my brain went, "We are so glad you're back, because we need your skill sets to be a functional human being in our society.

But no, we are not gonna live based on the values of the left hemisphere. We are now gonna live as a collective democracy inside of our own head."

I have to have that left hemisphere in order to be a functional human being. But even though my ego center is in my left hemisphere, my left hemisphere is not who I am. I am a left hemisphere and a right hemisphere.

If we are hooked into the emotional part of our left hemisphere that says, "I don't like that, it's not familiar, I don't feel safe," that clamps me down and I become constricted.

And I can fuel that by sharing those biases with those whom I am familiar with, then we all become more constricted, we all become more rigid. We all become more we versus they.

Yet, we have the capacity to say, "I am a part of a magnificent collective whole in relationship to a magnificent world." And as we engage with the world in a healthier way, the world becomes healthier.

We have the capacity to understand and have a healthy relationship with all the different parts of who we are.

And when we look at the anatomy of the brain, when we get that streamlined activity between the two thinking parts of our brain, the two emotional parts of our brain, and we're having a whole brain life, wow, things change.

I think the first thing we need to do is be willing and open to explore what's going on inside of our own head.

Get to know who you are. Get to know your four characters. Get to know how they engage in your life, who they have relationships with, how they feel inside of your body.

How much time do you want to spend in each of these four different parts? Once you know that, then you can create a negotiation.

And to me, that's personal freedom, to be able to know I have the power to choose moment by moment who and how I wanna be, regardless of my external circumstance.

And it's a wonderful, wonderful way of being.