[00:00:06.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[0:00:11.8] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success; the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than a million downloads and listeners in over a hundred countries and part of the self-help for smart people podcast network.
In this episode, we explore the brain; are the two halves of the brain really that different? What is the idea of whole brain thinking? How do you get your brain to do what you want it to do? Can we become more right-brained, or left-brained if we want to? We also dig into the personal story of our guest, a neuroanatomist who suffered from a devastating stroke and how that experience transformed her worldview with our guest, Dr. Jill Taylor.
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In our previous episode, we took a deep scientific look at consciousness. We asked how do our brains experience reality? What is consciousness? Is our perception of reality nothing more than a controlled hallucination? What is the hard problem of consciousness and what are the major aspects of consciousness? How can we use the neuroscience of consciousness to better understand ourselves and improve our lives? We dug into that and much more with our guest, Anil Seth. If you want to learn how to understand your own reality at a much deeper level, listen to that episode.
Now for the show.
[0:03:05.8] MB: Today, we have another awesome guest on the show, Dr. Jill Taylor. Dr. Jill is a Harvard-trained and published neuroanatomist. She's the best-selling author of her memoir My Stroke of Insight, which recounts her experience in recovery after a severe stroke which left her unable to walk, read, write or recall any of her life.
Her iconic TED Talk has been viewed over 22 million times and her work has been featured all over the globe from Oprah, to The New York Times and much more. Dr. Jill, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:03:35.7] JT: Thanks, Matt. It’s great to be here.
[0:03:37.5] MB: Well, we're really excited to have you on the show today. I mean, your stories are obviously fascinating and I was just recently re-watching your TED talk and almost teared up. It’s just so gripping and interesting. I'd love to start out with getting – beginning with the science and then getting into some of your personal experiences around that.
Tell me about the brain. Is it really true that we have two halves of the brain that are essentially largely disconnected and operate independently of each other?
[0:04:04.4] JT: The two hemispheres are connected to one another through some 300 million axonal fibers; the portion of the brain that communicates with itself. One area in my right hemisphere is communicating with fibers, with the comparables place in the left hemisphere. Whenever any thought or idea is flashing through our brains, both hemispheres are on full force.
However, there's generally an inhibition from one side to the other so that one side becomes more dominant in that particular portion of the brain. Both sides are constantly working, but they're working as a single thing. They're making decisions about who's going to dominate the conversation, or who's going to dominate the experience that you're having, and it turns out that yes, the two hemispheres are processing information very differently. Whereby, the right hemisphere starts with a small group of cells that communicates with more cells, with more cells, with more cells, so it filters the world and attends to the world from the bigger picture perspective.
Whereby, the left hemisphere is just the opposite where it starts with a bigger group of cells focusing in, focusing in, focusing in, narrowing its level of attention, so that it's really good with details. We end up with these two very different ways of perceiving, which is very useful blended together in our constant seamless perception of reality. Yeah, they're very different.
[0:05:32.8] MB: The right hemisphere is focused on more of a bigger picture view of things, and the left hemisphere is very detail-oriented?
[0:05:40.3] JT: Yes. Yeah, I think about it like the left brain is, let's say we're standing out in the field and we're looking horizontally across the field, and in that horizontal viewpoint we can see different blades of grass, we can see little critters, we can see all kinds of details. Then the right hemisphere puts us on a vertical access, picks us up above the field and then we get the bigger picture of what is in that big field and what is beyond that field as a potential predator.
[0:06:13.9] MB: What are some of the implications for the way we think and live our lives in terms of the fact that the brain hemispheres process and interact with the world so differently?
[0:06:24.1] JT: Well, I think it's a good thing. I mean, if all we're doing is focusing on the details, then we're not going to be very humorous, we need humor – humor requires a bigger picture, we won't be witty, we won't be open to new possibilities, we'll get rooted in thinking pattern that just – it becomes rigid and no creativity, because we're rooting into what we've already known.
With the right hemisphere, if all we have is a right hemisphere then we're big-picture, we're out in la-la land, we're not focusing on details, we're not very functional in the world. It's really this magical combination of a balance between the two, and that's what I'm all about; it's about whole brain thinking. How do we find this balance between the bigger picture of who we are and the bigger picture of humanity and our relationship with the world, and then at the same time, how do I get my details done? How do I choose my projects wisely? Because that's where my energy is going to go and that I don't get burned out. It's this whole brain living concept of how do I approach the time that I have on this planet with using really utilizing the skill sets of both hemispheres.
[0:07:34.7] MB: Tell me a little bit more about this idea of whole brain thinking, or whole brain living.
[0:07:38.7] JT: Well, if you look at the two brain structures and you look at the kind of information they care about, they're going to have actually different value structures. If I'm looking at myself as a human being in relationship to my community and I value my community and I want my tax dollars to go to my community in order to lift those up who are the downtrodden who need assistance and I focus my energy on how do I help other people, kind of we all rise together. That's a value structure.
Then if I'm in my left brain and I'm more about the detail of who I am, Jill Bolte Taylor, who's my family, who are my relations, what is my advantage, how do I climb the hierarchical ladder of society, either socially or financially and it's about me, and the focus is me, then that's a very different way, a very different value structure.
Finding balance in what is meaningful, which is for me the value structure of the right brain as opposed to my own self-value in a society that is made up of billions of people and how do I make my own self relevant with my own details, it's this blending together. In that blending together, comes a level of satisfaction.
If I come to life through that value structure of the bigger picture, how do I use me, Joe Bolte Taylor in the world, in order to make the world a better place? I use my left brain in order to manage the details and manage the schedule and manage what I'm doing and manage – management of who I am and what I do.
If I come into the world through the filter of, it's all about me and what I'm managing, and the world revolves around me, then my family and how I use my time, and it's just a completely different way of being in the world. The ultimate goal for me is if we do both and we come to it through the context of the bigger picture, then I use myself in the detail in a really positive way in the world. There's meaning there for me then.
[0:09:59.4] MB: I want to circle back to that concept, but I want to ask this question to better understand it. Is it true that people can be, or people are more left-brained or more right-brained? Because you can hear that thrown around sometimes. Is that an actual phenomenon?
[0:10:14.2] JT: Well, I think that when you think about the brain, every ability that we have, we have because we have brain cells that are performing that function. My ability to speak language is a group of cells. If those go offline, then I'm not going to be able to speak language. Your ability to understand when I speak, that's groups of cells; if those go offline, then you don't have that ability. My ability to wiggle my finger is the motor circuitry, and if that goes offline, then I experience paralysis.
All of these abilities that we have are cellular-based. Then there are certain things about cells that become predictable. If I'm using a group of cells, or let's say, well let's use the motor cortex, because if I'm an athlete and I'm exercising and re-running and re-running and rerunning circuitry in order to be able to perform a certain function, then I get really good at it. Well, that's how cells in the brain are; the more you practice them, the more routinize they become in their ability to function, to the point where they start running on automatic without us even having to think about it. That's a lovely thing.
That's true for how we think, or how we interact in the world. Whatever we exercise, whatever circuits get more exercised, then they become more strong and more dominant. By dominant, what that means is that a group of cells then is may reach over into that opposite hemisphere and inhibit those. If I become very verbal and I become very – my value structure becomes one of my left hemisphere, then those are the cells that I'm exercising and exercising and yeah, those are going to become my dominant hemisphere.
It is true that when we look at the cells and the circuitry that people tend to become often and often not, depends on what their value structure is, either more right-brained; they enjoy their creativity, they enjoy their innovation, they enjoy an open schedule, they encourage that circuitry inside of their brain, and they're not very happy to go to the office, or pay their taxes, or not pay their taxes, but do their taxes actually.
Or there are people who are just really good at numbers and really good at detail and really good at mechanics and really good at organizing things. That's what they tend to do. This balance between the two is what seems to bring a real ability to function in an accelerated level in our society.
[0:12:48.2] MB: How can we, for example, for someone who's dominant in one hemisphere than the other, how can they start to engage the processing in the less dominant hemisphere?
[0:13:01.5] JT: I think the first thing to do is to recognize and think about who and what you are and how you spend your thinking time. Thinking about thinking is I think a fascinating thing, and yet, many of my college students absolutely hate it when I ask them to do that. I think being aware of what's going on inside of your own head –
I give a talk called How to Get Your Brain to Do What You Want it to Do. One of the best ways to do that is to first, you have to pay attention to what is your brain already doing. What does it do really well? Then what are some of the things that you notice other people are doing that perhaps you would like more of that. If you're really good at engineering and you're really good at detail and you're really good at mechanical linear processing, where A plus B equals C and that you're good at that, then what more holistic bigger picture things might you enjoy engaging in, and then choosing to either hang out with other people who do those things and allow yourself to go out on the limb where the fruit is.
Or just figure out how do you want to grow. A lot of it's about personal growth. Do you want to just grow, or do you want to grow with some purpose in mind for developing yourself more wholly, more fully? Then if you do, then, my mother when I was going to college, she said the only thing I'm going to require that you take at school every semester is an athletics course. Whether it was fencing, or swimming, or hockey, she didn't care what it was, but she wanted me to go out there and get my head out of the details and get back into my body and stay physically active, because she wanted me to be both.
The first thing is recognizing on a scale of 1 to 50 where would you put yourself as how much time are you spending more on your right brain, or more in your left brain dominance, and are you happy with that? Then I think another really big question is do those two characters inside of yourself, the part of you that allows you to be open and more free and more connecting and more nurturing, does that character like your detailed person, and does your detailed person inside of yourself like the part of you that is more open?
I believe that the most important relationship that we have is the relationship between those two characters inside of our minds. If they like one another, how do they work with one another to support one another, so that we can all really thrive as an entity? Or if they don't like one another, then that's a whole another story.
[0:15:48.5] MB: I want to go deeper down this this rabbit hole. I mean, I completely understand and agree with the premise that awareness and self-awareness is really the fundamental first step in getting your brain to do what you want it to do. If anything, that self-awareness is probably the single most recurrent theme of every guest that we've interviewed on the show. I'm curious, I want to get into what are – once we've done the homework on that self-awareness component, what are the next concrete steps in getting our brains to do what we want them to do?
[0:16:21.4] JT: Well, I think then once we become aware of how we're spending our time, then I think it's a matter of recognizing who's who inside of myself. When you think about the self and lots of different ways about thinking about the self, and I go to a cellular level. I say, “Okay, I have these two higher cognitive minds, and my right cognitive mind is this character who is very open and very expansive and very accepting and very nurturing and very supportive and generally in a pretty good spirit and very present right here right now,” and I give her a name personally. I name her. Her name is Jill.
Then I have this other character in my left brain who goes to the office and she organizes my engagement, she takes care of my world, she tends to my dogs, she deals with all these things, and I give her a name, and her name is Helen, short for Hell on Wheels, because she is, but she's not my preferential way of being. I have her and I value her, and I value the character that she is within me.
Then I recognize that each of these two cognitive minds, each have their own emotional limbic system atomically. I try to pay attention to okay, what are my patterns, and how do I relate to myself at a cellular patterned level based on these characters? I'm a firm believer that we have the power to choose moment by moment who and how we want to be in the world.
To me what that matters is I have the power to choose moment by moment, do I step into this moment as my right cognitive mind, or as my left cognitive mind, or even as my right emotional brain, which is going to be right here right now, or my left emotional brain, which is caught up in my past and in my future and in those kinds of possibility?
I look at the brain at a cellular level, and I structure it based on what my personal experience has taught me about what's it mean, what's it like to actually lose half of my brain, and who's left? What am I left with and how do I perceive the world using that filter as I look out into the world?
[0:18:40.7] MB: For someone who's listening that doesn't feel they have the power to, or doesn't really understand how to choose which hemisphere to engage, or bring to a given moment or experience, how can they go about doing that, or what would you say to them?
[0:18:57.5] JT: I would encourage them to pay attention to what they're already doing. For example, if I'm at work and I'm busy and I'm caught up in my details and I'm busy, and then the telephone rings, and let's say that I'm expecting a phone call. I'm expecting a phone call about a position that I really want. If it were not that circumstance, if the telephone rings, I might find it to be an irritation.
Because I'm really expecting something, exciting then I'm not finding that interruption as an irritation, but I have the power to choose when that telephone rings whether I'm going to perceive it as something exciting and interest or as an irritation. We're doing this thing all the time. It's a matter then of looking at our own patterning. Your boss is walking down the hall, you hear the steps are coming. You're really excited to show your boss something, because you finished something and you're ready to present it and you've been waiting on them to come in, or the same clonk, clonk, clonk and you're dreading the conversation because you're not ready and you haven't been able to wrap your mind around anything brilliant, and you're not looking forward to the disappointment.
You have the power to choose in that moment how are you going to respond to the clonk, clonk, clonk coming down the hall. I think as we pay attention to what we are already doing and pay attention to what our own personal patterning is, we do have the power to choose and recognizing when I have chosen.
Let's say, I come home and I've got something on my mind and my little child ,my little toddler is running up to me, “Mommy, mommy. You're home, you're home.” In that moment, I have the power to choose whether or not I'm going to put down the groceries and pick up that little lump of love and just love that child, or whether or not I'm going to get on the phone real quick and do this, or do that, or do the other. We're making choices all the time. When as soon as you're making a choice or a decision, you're choosing one way of being over another way of being. Thinking about it that way allows us to differentiate the fact that we are making these choices all the time.
[0:21:13.7] MB: I understand the example of for example someone coming home and deciding how they want to spend time or react to seeing their child, but for someone who is having maybe a negative experience that they don't want to be having, or they feel is out of their control, or they feel it's an experience that they wish they weren't experiencing, how can they make that choice in that moment when they – it almost seems that they would rather have – they’re trying to make a choice, but they feel they can't?
[0:21:44.4] JT: Generally, when that happens, they're caught up in the emotional circuit of their left brain. The left brain is saying this is different than what I want it to be. The left brain is rather the perfectionist and in the perfect world, you're not having this conversation with me and breaking up with me, okay. We’ll just use that as a little example.
At the same time, so that left emotional system when it decides that reality is different from what is actually happening in what, or what I want to happen, at that level there's certain circuitry that is going to respond to that in a negative way, or in a I'm feeling unhappy, I'm feeling shamed, I'm feeling vulnerable, I'm feeling, I'm feeling, I'm feeling, and I'm not feeling what I want to be feeling, which is what you're saying. What happens when you're in that scenario?
Then I think that the question is well, that's correct. You're there and you're running that circuit. There's nothing more delicious than feeling miserable, miserable other than perhaps grief, grievance, grieving, personal grieving is also an absolutely delicious emotion. I have the choice of just getting caught up in the fact that I'm madder than hell, or I'm brokenhearted, or I'm grieving, because someone has died, or is dying who I absolutely adore. That's real circuitry, and it's beautiful circuitry.
I have the choice to say this is horrible, or I have the choice to say this is a circumstance I would not prefer. However, it is delicious that I am alive and capable of having this experience. I call this observing, instead of simply engaging. I'm a firm believer that anything that happens in our lives simply because we are alive and we are capable of having that conversation, or perspective, it's delicious. When we run real emotional circuitry, it's amazing. Or if we're running a cognitive ability simply to be able to observe the fact that I am alive and capable of having this experience is amazing.
Here I am, this amazing being, this form of some 50 trillion molecular cells with DNA making them molecular geniuses, spinning on a rock out in the middle of the universe. When I'm willing to allow myself to celebrate the fact that I am even capable of being miserable, I always tell my friends, “I don't mind if you're miserable. I just want you to enjoy it. Enjoy the fact that you're capable of experiencing the misery.” Run the circuit, let it go, step back and say , “Wow, oh my gosh.” As soon as you do that, as soon as you're willing to observe what is happening inside of you, instead of simply engaging with it, then you're a step away in the experience of awe that I exist at all and that I'm capable.
Then your right brain, which essentially what you just did was you stepped out of your left brain into your right brain, your right brain is observing saying, “Wow.” The right brain is the part of us that says, regardless of whether or not this is going to happen, of course this isn't what I predicted for me, or I expected for me, or I wanted for me, and now I have to deal with shame, or grief, or whatever, once we allow ourselves to step away from that and observe the bigger picture of – the big picture, I'm actually going to be okay, with or without that relationship, with or without that job, with or without that experience, because I am going to be okay.
When you bring yourself back to the present moment and you say “Why? Why?” Why is to me not the question. The question is wow. That's I guess, not even a question. I don't know if I answered your question or not.
[0:25:33.9] MB: No, I think that's really insightful. It's the idea that just the simple fact, and I think it's come from the presence and the mindfulness and the observation of your own thinking experience, with this idea that just being alive and being able to experience negative emotions in the grand scheme of things is actually a tremendously unique and crazy thing, just the fact that we exist and the fact that we're here. You're saying celebrate that negative emotion, let it process and then move on from it.
[0:26:00.7] JT: Exactly. Recognize that it's circuitry. We all get so caught up in, “Oh, my gosh. Oh, my gosh. I'm so important and I’m the center of the universe.” At the same time, I'm just dust particles here that I'm going to be gone in an instant. For me, I always go back to the cells, and which cells am I running that are permitting me, or offering me the certain experience that I'm experiencing.
If somebody happens and my negative emotions get triggered, it’s still just cells. I'm capable of raging like a wild banshee, because I have cells that perform that function and they engage my entire body circuitry, in order for me to be able to rant and rave like that. Then I step back and I go, “Wow, that was something.” Its cells. At the same time, I'm capable of experiencing extreme joy, extreme love, extreme celebration, extreme openness and expansiveness and connection. Again, wow I have cells that are performing that function.
To me, people say, “Jill, you're reducing love and all these wonderful things to cells and it's not –” It’s like, “Oh, my gosh. No I'm not reducing anything. I'm celebrating the cells that permit me the ability, because if I'm dead I don't have the circuitry that permits me the ability to have that experience.” Any of the motions that I get to experience that are rich and delicious, of course I want to be able to experience that. At the same time know that from the moment you trigger an emotional circuit, to the time you think those thoughts, you experience the emotions, the physiology gets dumped inside your bloodstream, it flushes through you, it flushes out of you, takes less than 90 seconds if you don't keep rethinking the thought that re-stimulates the circuits. Observing and engaging and being aware of and celebrating, I mean, those are choices.
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[0:29:08.9] MB: There's a couple different ways that I want to expand on this. Before we get too much deeper into the neuro circuitry of the brain, which I want to talk about and I want to talk about the emotional limbic systems of both of the hemispheres, I think this might be a really good opportunity to share your story and your experience with your stroke. Would you tell that story and what the felt emotional experience of having that stroke was like?
[0:29:35.7] JT: Sure, I grew up to study the brain in the first place, because one of my brothers was only 18 months older than I was, and he was my constant companion as children, and I recognized very early, I'm going to say by year four or five, that – we would have the exact same experience, but we would walk away with very different perceptions about what happened.
I tuned in very early to what are we as living beings, and how is it that he can think that and I can think this? Ultimately then, I grew up to get my PhD, and I was studying neuroanatomy at Harvard. I woke up one morning and I had a major hemorrhage in the left half of my own brain.
Here I am, a brain scientist, teaching and performing research at Harvard, so I think neuro-anatomically. All of a sudden, I started experiencing what I call neurological weirdness, which most of us can relate to. Analyzing inside of my own brain, what's going on? What is happening to me? I was not a clinician, I was not a neurologist, so I didn't recognize symptoms early until paralysis happened in my right arm, and then I realized, “Oh my gosh. I'm having a stroke.”
I had a blood vessel burst in the left half of my brain, and over the course of four hours, I could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of my life. I became what I described as an infant in a woman's body. By that afternoon, the entire left hemisphere was swimming in a pool of blood and all I had left was my right hemisphere.
I was still conscious and I was still aware, but I thought differently in the absence of having a left hemisphere. In that absence, I lost the boundaries of where I began and where I ended, so that I perceived myself as a big ball of energy blending with the energy of everything around me. I had the sense that I became literally as big as the universe, and yet, I was consciously aware of that bigger picture, but I had lost all the details; I had lost my language, my ability to speak, I lost my ability to say I am Jill Bolte Taylor, in the absence of being able to say that, and that portion of my brain that define who is Jill Bolte Taylor? What does she know? What has she studied? What are her likes? Who are her friends and her family, her relationships? I lost the definition of Jill Bolte Taylor.
In the absence of her, I became this this energy ball big as the universe, with a completely different perception, because it was no longer inhibited by my left brain ability focus on the details in the external world. I lived in a completely silent mind, absolutely no language whatsoever for five weeks. At the two-and-a-half week mark in the middle of that, I had to have brain surgery to remove a blood clot that was the size of a golf ball.
Once that happened, then they put me back together again and they said, “Good luck. We'll see what you get back.” They gave me two years before we really know anything. Language started to come back online about two and a half to three weeks later, and I had to learn how to speak again, I had to learn vocabulary, I had to go back to essentially school. My right brain could have sculpted for you an abdomen, or drawn for you circuitry in the brain, but my left hemisphere didn't have the language and the terminology for how to name the three different portions of a stomach.
I went I went back and I relearned all my material. Then the circuitry of my left emotional brain wanted to come back online. I didn't like the way that it felt. It was my anger and my pain, my emotional pain from the past. I learned that I had some say in whether or not that circuitry was going to run, or not.
It was a fascinating growth full experience through the process of recovery as a neuroscientist. Not just relearning my anatomy and my physiology and my neuroanatomy and everything that I teach at the medical school, but I also relearning who is – who am I and how do these two hemispheres work with one another in order to create a whole bean inside of me and what choices that I have, and which circuits ran and which circuits did not run.
It's been a long journey. I spent eight years actually negotiating with myself and my cells in order to figure out who did I want to be round two, because that Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, she died that day. My goal was never to become her again. Yet, who would I become?
[0:34:21.5] MB: Such a fascinating story. Tell me a little bit more about that profound experience of having your left brain essentially turned off, and the – for lack of a better term, almost the oneness you felt with everything around you.
[0:34:40.1] JT: It's an exquisite experience. I'm going to go right back to again, I am a bunch of neurons and the neurons that are running are demanding my attention, or offering my ability to experience the world in certain ways.
When all the detail circuitry went offline with language – and language is enormous. When you consider how complicated language is, and we also have language in the right hemisphere, so I could still – I still have the cells. I didn't have the cells that could create sound. Dog, dog is a sound. Then another portion of the brain, different cells in the left hemisphere create meaning and attach meaning to the sound dog, so that when I speak, you understand what I say, etc.
The right hemisphere listens to the song of how I speak and intonation of my voice, as well as adds on the emotional content of what I'm experiencing. If I say something like, “I love you. I love you,” and your brain is saying, well your left hemisphere is hearing, “I love you.” You know what I love you means, because those cells are tuned and trained for that. Yet, your right hemisphere is picking up the fact that, well that sounds like anger. Anger and hostility don't generally jive well with the words I love you.
You're looking at me and questioning the reality of what I'm actually trying to communicate with you. Every ability that we have is divided between these two beautiful hemispheres. When one hemisphere went offline, it was that attending to all those details, and instead, I shift it into the perception of myself without the boundaries of where I began, where does my skin end and the air begins, because I am an energy ball. I perceive myself because of the cells in my left hemisphere in my left orientation center of my left parietal region, I I lost the perception of those boundaries defining me as me and you as you and we’re separate from one another and we’re solids.
In the absence of that, I felt that I was a fluid. I am a fluid. Our bodies are over 90% liquid and I'm slowing and the atoms and molecules around us are flowing and this planet is flowing and it's orbit around the universe. I mean, everything is this big fluid system. I shifted into that consciousness, and I wasn't distracted by detail. Instead, I was experiencing the wholeness of the energy being that we would call Jill, but I didn't have that definition, because my left hemisphere wasn't defining it as anything. I just experienced everything around me as connected.
I stepped into I call it, I very affectionately refer to it as lala land, because it was magnificent and it was beautiful and I felt a sense of incredible euphoria. Then my left brain would be challenged, or want to come back online and hook back into detail. For me in the beginning, that was an excruciatingly difficult process, because those cells were swimming in a pool of blood and were non-functional. To try to pay attention to detail was just really not an option.
I was very content, and without the language defining things for me, I got to experience things without definition and without any boundary or barrier. For me, that was a real – I'm guessing what Nirvana is, or the experience of anyone who tries to meditate and preoccupy their left brain structure system and silence it or ignore it, to be able to have that experience of feeling that one with all that is. It was beautiful there.
[0:38:36.4] MB: Fascinating and really, really thought-provoking. I mean, even just as you talked about the idea of feeling your energy that's connected to everything, I mean, from a purely scientific standpoint E = mc2, all matter is nothing but energy. It's really, really profound and I find amazingly interesting that you had experience.
[0:38:59.2] JT: Well, I think that when you consider that the difference between us being alive and us not being alive is the fact that we have at least two neurons that are communicating with one another. Those two neurons are going to be stimulated by, stimulate and be stimulated by not just one another, but with the external world. As soon as you have two neurons negotiating dominance, or whatever single cells are capable of, you're going to have an interesting relationship. That's the beginning of a relationship, and I guess actually the microbe is the beginning of the relationship, because it's a semipermeable sac filled with liquid and all kinds of dynamic yummy things that make a world within a cell, then receptors on the membrane for certain things in the external world.
Some things will attract us toward let's say hydrogen. If I'm a cell, then hydrogen is a good thing, or a light photon is a good thing; it stimulates me to really percolate inside of what's going on inside of my cell. Then I might be attracted toward it, or I might be repelled by that, because to me, that's toxicity and I will go away.
I look at us as human beings in exactly the same way. Except, we’re these magnificent multicellular creatures capable of perceiving all kinds of information based on the filtering systems of our sensory systems. We are attracted toward, or we are repelled from things in our environment.
I think when you really wrap your mind around that fact of what you are as a living being and you start saying, “Wow, that's cool. That's a different way of looking at stuff,” it allows you to step away from the ego that says, “I am the center of the universe and everything is about me and everything revolves around me and every circuit that I run, I am controlled by essentially and I have no say about what's going on inside of my head.” That's simply clearly not the truth anymore, and you mentioned mindfulness.
The mindfulness research shows that we can consciously choose to think certain thought patterns, and by simply choosing to run certain thought patterns, just by choice, we can create a habit, and the habit is actually structural growth inside of the brain of different circuits, so that I can then become more of one way, or more of another way, or by becoming more of this, I can actually become less of that.
Or if I become more of that, then I can influence myself consciously by choosing to be more like this more of the time, even if it doesn't have it naturally, but I can choose to develop that circuit inside of my brain. I think we're completely neuroplastic, completely malleable, maybe not completely, but certainly we have a whole lot of say about what's going on inside of our head that we've never been taught.
[0:42:05.6] MB: I want to dig into neuroplasticity. Before we do, I'm curious, tell me about – I don't know if I'm phrasing this correctly or not, but would you say that the idea that we are separate from everything else is almost a controlled illusion that is maintained by the brain?
[0:42:25.8] JT: Now you're getting into the good stuff. I know you've had conversations with other people who talk about self. You look at the body and nine out of ten of the microbes related to us are not even our own. I see us as this collection of cells, and the cells are these little living things and they have relationships with one another. By doing so and by attracting themselves physically to one another, I become this dense energy ball. We define this dense energy ball as me.
Okay, so that's come certainly a different way than we typically look at ourselves, but okay, that's what we are. If that's what we are, then how I, or whatever my consciousness is that says I'm capable of choosing how to use this mass is totally open to possibility. I become this dense energy ball, and because I have a three-dimension of cells inside of this brain that processes billions, literally billions and trillions of bits of data, moment by moment, instant by instant, in order for me to perceive myself as a real entity, I'm processing probably like 0.001 percent of all the stuff going on around me, only because my eyes will experience certain frequencies, my ears will experience certain frequencies, my skin will perceive certain densities, whatever it is, I am this amazing biological creature capable of perceiving the world in the way that I do as a normal human.
There are other creatures that pick up other kinds of information processing, that we don't even know about. I do have the ability to perceive myself as a living person, as an entity based on the collection of cells and how my cells are organized in order to process stimulation in certain ways inside of this three-dimensional brain, giving me a three-dimensional perception of myself in a three-dimensional space.
I think it's really cool. I don't take myself that seriously. I don't take any of this really seriously. Yet, at the same time, I take it all extremely seriously, because I'm here, I'm alive, I value life, I would to see us as humanity in a relationship to the planet, take better care of her and of the – just the way we are, because life to me is a precious and amazing thing. The evolution of humanity and what's going on and how our human brains are developing and how far we've come as a living being, I would like to see us be able to evolve to the next level. I think it's all very interesting and exciting in its own interesting way.
[0:45:37.3] MB: It's so fascinating to me. I mean, obviously truly unique experience to have such a trained neuroanatomist, experienced a stroke from the inside out and the experiences you had and how that must have shaped your life and your perceptions of the world. It's truly, truly interesting and inspiring to me personally.
[0:45:57.2] JT: How old are you Matt?
[0:45:58.1] MB: 31.
[0:45:59.7] JT: 31 and I look at your life, I look at and I have this tiny little filter of who you are and how you're using yourself. In your 31 years, you've managed to figure out that for you, the process of discovery and searching and growing and not just as an individual, but helping other people in the world, just simply by doing these kinds of interviews and sharing those with your fellow population.
I look at you and just in what I can see on the internet, because that's how we all are filtering and making judgment these days, and I see you as using both of your hemispheres. You would not be doing what you're doing, as a human being, and having the kinds of conversations you're having at your age, if you weren't really bringing forth the gift skillsets of both hemispheres.
To me, to be able to have a conversation with someone who is your age, who communicates with people in your population, because I'm a woman in my 50s, and your population is young men, probably 25 to 35; this is a population I don't get to speak to often, but you do. I think it's remarkable that you are coming into the world here with all of your skills, saying how do I do this in a way that I can actually influence my fellow man in a really positive way at a critical time in their life, where they're making enormous choices in who and how they want to be for the rest of their lives?
I think you're an excellent example of how can some use their skillsets in a positive way, in both of their hemispheres in order to make your personal impact, in a satisfying and meaningful way. First, I just want to say thank you.
[0:47:52.1] MB: Wow, that was really, really kind. I really appreciate that. Thank you so much. It really means a lot to me. Wow, I can't – I'm blushing. Thank you for sharing those kind words. I do have one more topic I want to touch on, but before we wrap-up. I'd love to dig into a little bit neuroplasticity. We talked about it. We mentioned it, but I think it's really important to underscore and share this idea that our brains are not fixed and that they can be changed and improved.
[0:48:21.3] JT: If you go back to the concept of where our brain is just a group of cells communicating with one another. Let's say, I mean learning. All learning is different cells who are putting together different skill sets in a fluid path, so that we have the ability to have a new ability. That is neuroplasticity. Learning is neuroplasticity.
The only reason why a neuro plasticity is such a catchphrase now is because we were taught back in the 80s and 90s and I don't know how far back, but forever, that the first three years of life are the critical developmental period. After that, we don't really do much development. The fact of the matter is yes, those first three years are an extremely important developmental period, because that's when the cells, which when you think about the cortex, the cerebral cortex of those two hemispheres is the undulated convoluted portion that you think of when you think of a brain.
The cells, they’re six layers thick. When we're born, most all of those cells in the cortex have assumed a position inside of those six layers. They haven't really interconnected with one another. During the first three years of experience, those cells start creating pattern responses and inter-relate to one another.
It's a critical time. Absolutely, we need to have an enriched environment for our babies. The more exposure they get, the more neurons connect to one another in different patterning and we want to set our babies up with all this magnificent neural patterning, so that as they get older they have all that to call on. Yes, development is incredibly important.
Then for pretty much the next maybe eight to ten years, that circuitry gets established and we teach our kids in elementary school and we teach them how to be social with adults and kids their own age and their siblings, and we teach them how to speak and we teach them how to crawl and then walk, and there's all this really important stuff going on, but it's really all about me.
Then the teenage years begin to hit and pre-puberty hits about two years before the full-blown puberty response. There's just sprouting of dendritic connections between the neurons that's the receiving part of the neurons. Then these cells are receiving, receiving, receiving. If you know children a couple of years before puberty, they're like little sponges. They want to they want to know everything, and at the same time, they were distracted by everything, because everything's so exciting and stimulating.
Then the puberty years come on. As the puberty years come on, we go through this big physiological physical spurt, and all of a sudden our bodies are becoming very interesting, very unusual, very unfamiliar, but very interesting and hormones start to flow and all of this stuff is going on inside of our bodies. There's actually another major neurological transformation that is happening at the level of the teenage years.
All of this is to say that neuroplasticity is a fundamental way that the nervous system is, but we didn't know that. Because we didn't know that in science, I was taught back in the 80s and the 90s that the brain cells you're born with are the brain cells you're going to die with. You have to protect them. Yes, that is true, except for that we do have the capacity to grow some new neurons, especially in response to trauma. That's neurogenesis, so we're capable of growing some new neurons.
Then neuroplasticity is the ability of ourselves to rearrange who they're communicating with, like the social network of neurons. That is also very natural and very – it underlies the function and how the cells function. We just didn't know that before. Now we act neuroplasticity is this really big thing, and it is this really big thing, but it makes sense, because it's how we learn. In order for me to learn that A plus B equals C, I have to learn what an A is, I have to learn what a B is, and then I have to be able to put them together in a way that my mind has never put them together before in order to come up with C. Yeah, neuroplasticity is a magnificent thing.
Certainly, I would not be here speaking to you if my left brain had not been capable of neuro plasticity rearranging its connections and communications after that trauma, in order for – because actual cells died inside of my brain and somehow or another, other cells had to be formed through neurogenesis in order to replace that function, or the cells that were in there had to rearrange how they were communicating with one another, so that I would actually regain that ability of those cells that had died.
[0:53:16.9] MB: What would one piece of homework be that you would give to someone listening to this episode to maybe implement some of the ideas, or things we've talked about today?
[0:53:26.7] JT: I would say pay attention on what's going on inside of your head. Pay attention to what are you thinking now and how does it feel. Would you say that it was more of a cognitive thinking thing, or are you experiencing an emotion? I would encourage people to actually maybe jot down in the course of an hour what kinds of things are they thinking; are they thinking details, big picture, or are they having a really creative innovative moment? Are they feeling loving? Are they feeling – what emotion are they feeling? How would they label that?
Just look at what is your standard. What's your base level today. Then ask yourself, okay I respond in X way to my wife. I'm responding Y way to my sibling. How do I respond and react what's actually going on? What circuitry am I running and? I think once you start paying attention to that, a big light bulb is going to go off and then you're going to ask yourself, “Whoa, how much of this stuff do I want and how much of that stuff do I want more of? Then how do I get further in actually doing, creating that circuitry inside of my own brain?”
[0:54:43.5] MB: Where can listeners find you and your work online?
[0:54:47.4] JT: Well, if you plug in Jill Bolte Taylor, I think I'm going to pop up all over the place. There's interviews on YouTube, there are a bunch of interviews on podcasts. I mean, I'm just kind of – it surprises me at how I have managed to – I'm like a neuron, because everybody's got a brain. If you have a brain, then you're probably interested in your brain. If you're interested in your brain, then you're going to find me of interest. If you find me of interest, then depending on which portion of what I have to say you're interested in.
Say for example, you're about science. You're interested in the neurons and what that experience is, but you're also in the whole brain avenue, so you actually do care about what's going on in both of those hemispheres and how they relate to one another. Some people are more attracted towards the more left brain conversation, some people are more interested in the more right brain conversation, some people are more interested in the whole brain conversation, but I can guarantee it, if you go looking, you'll find. Otherwise, drjilltaylor.com, is I think where I hang out.
[0:55:49.7] MB: Well Dr. Jill, thank you so much for coming on the show for sharing all this wisdom, your amazing personal story, and all of the knowledge with our listeners. We really, really appreciate it.
[0:56:00.1] JT: Well, I appreciate you reaching out Matt. Again, I value who you are and how you are using yourself in the world. Anyway that I can help, I'm happy to contribute. Thank you.
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