The Four Characters That Drive Our Life

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Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” My favorite books are those that help me evolve into my better self. I don’t lend those books because I read them again and again. Even then, I don’t always practice what I read. Jill Bolte Taylor’s Whole Brain Living may have a better shot at making me a more thoughtful person. 

All mammals have two separate brain hemispheres, each with an emotional and thinking module of cells. The Left hemisphere processes from the external and immediate, Am I safe? This may be either physical or emotional. It scans our memory bank (and anticipates the future). Is this situation reminiscent of past pain or danger? The Right brain thinks in the present moment. Do it now. It’s me having a second glass of wine, ignoring the past (how it ruins my sleep) or future (how will I feel tomorrow)?

If our perceptions wave a red flag (“Oh no, my house is on fire!”), our ability to act on that information relies on our nervous system. When memory has an element of fear, it’s more likely to be remembered. However, our reactions don’t have to be automatic. We can relax and, in time, undo knee-jerk reactions—useful at family gatherings. 

“When my left thinking network went off-line [Jill observed during the stroke episode], a specific part of my personality, a character that I had known for decades as my ego-self, also disappeared.”

Jill Bolte Taylor

Jill Bolte Taylor explains the brain’s basic anatomy in terms of four characters, each distinct from the others. She is a Harvard trained-neuroscientist who had a massive stroke in the left hemisphere at the age of 37, giving her a front seat view of the impact on her mind and body. 

The Left hemisphere is home to Characters 1 and 2, and the Right hemisphere is home to Characters 3 and 4. Jill suggests we give them names to honor their identities. The better we identify which character is in charge, the more power we have to choose who and how we want to be at any given moment. When we understand the choices we make, consciously or unconsciously, we have more say in how to live. Bringing together the four parts of our brain, “Brain Huddle,” we can create a road map to inner peace.

Each of these characters represent an authentic part of who we are at a cellular level and should be treated with dignity, respect, and honor.”

Jill Bolte Taylor

Character 1 creates order in the external world. There is never a day when Tim doesn’t know where his keys are. There is rarely a day where Edith knows where hers are. It values materialism. Reading Jill’s book, Whole Brain Living, with two friends, Z named her Character 1 Miss Diligent, and B called hers Hildegard. Jill Bolte Taylor calls her Character 1 Helen—short for “Hell on wheels, she gets it done!” Character 1 is our moral compass that defines right/wrong and good/bad. Next time you make a To-Do list, you are in Character 1. 

Character 2, B’s Nervous Nellie, doesn’t feel safe or worthy of being loved. She sees the world through a lens of fears and worries. Nellie’s happiness depends on external circumstances. She warns us of danger, but we don’t want to adopt her way of perceiving as a lifestyle. For personal growth, we need to know when her fears are real and when she needs to be soothed. Jill calls hers Abby for abandoned, her deepest fears.  

When Z and I are both in Character 3— she calls her Sparkle— we feel connected and are having fun. “Intoxicated” with nature and ideas, it’s a state of ego abandonment. Sparkle is the joyful kid within. It’s about the collective WE and our relationship to nature and others. When you have a rip-roaring good old time with friends, you are probably all in Character 3.

“Life is made up of sequential moments and once our Four Characters are all in the BRAIN Huddle, we then have the power to choose which character we would like to have come out next. This is how we own our power, and no one can take our power away from us.”“

Jill Bolte Taylor

B calls her Character 4 Faith, the home to gratitude and openness and humbleness. Out in nature, praying, or repeating a mantra we quiet our left brain in order to experience deep inner peace. It’s where we feel connected to everyone and everything. We are one with the cosmos. 

Our four characters take turns running our life. Character 1 needs to be productive, Character 2 keeps us out of harm’s way, Character 3 wants to connect and play, and Character 4 is when we feel a part of something greater than ourselves.

For the most part, the four characters have minimal awareness of one another. Jill writes, “Most of the circuits in our brains run on automatic. The more you think a thought, the more energy goes into that circuit. Eventually, it gets enough energy to run the thought automatically without us needing to put more energy into it.” 

We have a tool that Dr. Taylor calls the BRAIN Huddle to create a conversation between the different brain parts. We have the power to step out of the reactive emotional parts of our brain and choose which character is best suited for the next moment.  

Understanding how the brain works and the potential of the BRAIN Huddle can be life-changing. The more time we spend in the circuitries of our right hemispheres, the more peaceful we are. Instead of being at the mercy of our knee-jerks, we will choose how to respond by emitting energy that will spread like an infectious virus for the betterment of humanity and the planet.  

“And I must say, there was both freedom and challenge for me in recognizing that our perception of the external world, and our relationship to it, is a product of our neurological circuitry. For all those years of my life, I really had been a figment of my own imagination!”

Jill Bolte Taylor