A Neuroanatomist On The 4 Ways Your Brain Operates (And How To Tap Into Each)
Although we have been trained to believe that our left brain is our rational brain while our right brain is our emotional brain, the limbic tissue responsible for our emotions is evenly divided between our two hemispheres. As a result, each of our brain hemispheres has both an emotional and a thinking module of cells, and each of these modules of cells results in not only a predictable skill set but a character profile or personality.
When we know each of the Four Characters (our two emotional and our two thinking), we then have the power to choose moment by moment which character we want to embody at any time. This is true personal freedom.
Here is a primer on each of the four brain characters and how to call on them with ease:
Character 1: Left-brain thinking
Our left brain organizes information across time, so our left hemisphere organizes information about the external world taking into account our past and future temporal orientations. Our left thinking tissue is what I call Character 1, and this is the conscious and rational part of our brain that naturally organizes, categorizes, and thinks in language.
Part of our language is our ability to say "I am," so it represents the ego part of our brain and filters all incoming information through the filter of our individual self. Our left thinking brain also defines the boundaries of where we begin and end—as it constructs a holographic image of our body. As a result, we define ourselves as a single, solid entity that is separate from others and has an individual identity.
Our Character 1 thinks methodically, defines what is right and wrong, good and bad, and likes to control people, places, and things. It is essentially our alpha or A-type personality and enjoys being not only the boss but needs to be "right."
Character 2: Left-brain emotional
Our left emotional tissue, known as Character 2, also exists in the temporal realms of the past and future. Although each of our emotional groups of cells functions as our alarm/alert autonomic response to protect ourselves, Character 2 brings information in from the present moment and immediately compares the present moment to anything we have ever experienced in our past. If a present stimulation looks anything like a past threat, then we are emotionally triggered to push the threat away.
In addition, any of our emotions that are dependent on a past experience are exemplified by our Character 2. For example, if I hold resentment over something that happened in the past, then I am in my Character 2. If I feel guilt or shame over something in the past, then I am embodying my Character 2.
This part of our brain is completely related to our experience with the external world, so if I am happy, then I am happy because things in the external world match the preconceived way I want them to be. Happiness is dependent on external conditions.
Character 3: Right-brain thinking
Our right brain is all about the present moment and the collective whole, which is the opposite of the left brain and its focus on me, the individual. Consequently, our emotional Character 3 represents the character profile of our right here, right now emotional self.
Outside the judgment of right/wrong or good/bad that happens in our left hemisphere, the emotional experience of the present moment is free to explore, create, and indulge itself with whatever it fancies.
This Character 3 part of our brain is experiential and also a part of our alarm/alert circuitry should we find ourselves in real imminent danger in the present moment. At the same time, this part of our brain is an adrenaline junkie. It is both playful and curious and seeks similarities rather than our left-brain defined differences. As a result, our Character 3 enjoys exploring new types of people, places, and things.
Character 4: Right-brain emotional
Our right-brain Character 4, like our Character 3, does not define itself as either an individual or ego-self. Instead, our Character 4 thinking tissue perceives itself as a collection of atoms and molecules moving fluidly through space and time at one with all that is.
It is this portion of our brain that is unconditionally nurturing, supportive, compassionate, and loving. We reach for this part of our consciousness through our prayers and our meditations. This part of ourselves is filled with a sense of gratitude for life itself and a deep sense of peace because it knows that whatever is, is a gift, and all is well.
How to tap all 4 characters with a Brain Huddle.
This is a five-step process that I call the Brain Huddle, whereby we consciously take a pause, call all Four Characters into our awareness, and then together as a team contemplate our next best move.
I encourage you to practice the Brain Huddle in everyday moments so you can train your brain to make important decisions swiftly and skillfully. If you are willing to train your Four Characters to function as a team during the benign moments of your life, then when you are in duress, you will have that skill available.
Here is a quick preview of the steps we will take to do a Brain Huddle:
- Breathe and focus on your breath. This enables you to hit the pause button, interrupt your emotional reactivity, and bring your mind to the present moment with a focus on yourself.
- Recognize which of the Four Characters' circuitry you are running in the present moment.
- Appreciate whichever character you find yourself exhibiting, and appreciate the fact that you have all Four Characters available to you at any moment.
- Inquire within and invite all Four Characters into the huddle so they can collectively and consciously strategize your next move.
- Navigate your new reality, with all Four Characters bringing their best game.
You will no doubt realize that these five steps of the Brain Huddle spell out "B-R-A-I-N." While I, of course, think this acronym is adorable, it also has a real purpose: to help you quickly remember the steps when the pressure is on and your Character 2's stress circuitry is running on overdrive.
In moments like those, when you can barely think because the chemicals of anxiety or fear are flooding through your bloodstream and overwhelming your circuitry, this B-R-A-I-N acronym can beam like a bright neon light, reminding you of the steps you can take to call your brain team together so you can find your way back into the peace of your right brain.
This process of the Brain Huddle, whereby we can consciously and deliberately bring all Four Characters into the conversation, is both powerful and empowering.
We have the ability to interrupt the automatic circuitry of our emotional reactivity and consciously choose which of the Four Characters we want to have as dominant at any moment. Knowing our Four Characters and being able to recognize them in others enables us to interact more authentically in a whole-brain way.
Jill Bolte Taylor Ph.D. 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. 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.
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, 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.