How do you resolve internal conflict – that pushing and pulling of the mind between different conclusions and opposed courses of action?
It’s a bedeviling part of the human condition, to feel torn in this way. You can lose hours, days, even lifetimes back-and-forth-ing over what to make of the past and what to do next.
A solution is in the very nature of that multiplicity of mind.
Not Brain. Brains.
The breakthrough comes from the work of brain scientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor in her brilliant book, Whole Brain Living. It is a missing link that explains the source – and potential – of this common experience of inner conflict. The solution only makes sense with a more complete understanding of the brain – or, rather, brains (plural) – so, this will be a longer post than usual.
It turns out that your experience of different voices in your head is a feature, not a bug, of the human brain. “In the mammalian nervous system, a new species is often created by adding new brain cells on top of a well-integrated preexisting cellular matrix,” Taylor says. “When this happens, the new tissue is designed to refine and evolve the abilities of the tissue below.”
You already knew that your brain has left and right hemispheres that have unique characteristics, but did you know about these levels of brain, too? Nature wastes nothing. So, on top of an instinctive, body-regulating brain stem that we share with reptiles, we have brain tissue that adds emotions. It’s called the limbic brain, and we share it with mammals. On top of that feeling, mammalian brain, humans have brain tissue that adds thinking. It’s called the neocortex or prefrontal cortex.
In terms of processing, sensory information passes first through the limbic system, and then up to the cortex. That makes us, Taylor says, “feeling creatures who think,” not thinking creatures who feel. After that, the two hemispheres of the brain, left and right, vie for dominance.
About that vying Taylor says, “By having both of these hemispheres working together inside of one head, we experience a natural duality. As a result, it is normal for us to endure an ongoing internal conflict, based completely on the two uniquely autonomous perspectives of our left and right brains.”
So: emotional brain + thinking brain x left brain + right brain = not one but four brains. Taylor says, “Every ability we have is completely dependent on the underlying brain cells that manufacture those abilities, and these four different groups of cells manufacture four different skill sets, ultimately resulting in the expression of each of our Four Characters.”
Get to know the personality and abilities of each of your Four Characters, and you go from Babel to band, confusion to crew.
Your Four Characters
First, briefly, the two hemispheres. The left hemisphere processes in serial and separates. From it we get our perceptions of time and self/other, which further enable us to move our bodies and to speak. Language makes the left hemisphere louder in our head and thus more dominating than the right hemisphere.
In contrast, the right hemisphere is a parallel processor. It exists in an eternal present, with no perception of past or future, and in unity with the entire cosmos, without distinguishing between self and other. It is nonverbal, “quiet,” and doesn’t move, per se, but rather “flows” with the rest of creation. It is less common for the right brain to be dominant.
Second, the two layers. The limbic/emotional layer of brain is childlike. Because it is evolutionarily older, when you are born it is almost fully functional. Whereas the neocortical/thinking layer of brain is adultlike. It takes decades to develop after you’re born.
This explains why babies and children are so emotional but bad at thinking, which also explains why the rules children make to cope with the world – such as, “I have to be perfect to be loved” – do not serve them well in adulthood.
Now, the Four Characters:
Character 1 is your left hemisphere thinking brain. Serial processing, separating, adultlike, and verbal, it is your executive. It knows how to get things done around here: how to play and win this game in this context. It can be “soft,” like an efficient mother or executive assistant: organized, detail-oriented, savvy, and discerning. It can also be “hard,” like a general: judgmental, ruthless, and competitive. Without Character 1, you are non-functional in the world, an infant in a grown person’s body.
Character 2 is your left hemisphere emotional brain. Serial processing, separating, childlike, and verbal, it is your inner child. Its job is to keep you safe. It stores the emotional content of all your life experiences so that it can judge if something is likely to hurt you. “Does this feel like that [painful experience]?” it asks. It is the part of you that gets “triggered” and activates your sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system. Although its capacity to take over can be inconvenient, Character 2 plays a vital role. People who lose their Character 2 due to stroke or injury experience life as flat and find it impossible to make decisions.
Character 3 is your right hemisphere emotional brain. Parallel processing, one with all in the eternal present, childlike, and nonverbal, Character 3 is curious and playful. Imagine the child who cannot walk from A to B without becoming mesmerized by dandelions that poke up through cracks in the sidewalk, who cannot encounter a puddle without jumping in it, who puts everything in her mouth and smears food in her face and hair because, “Wow, that feels interesting!” and you have Character 3. This brain tissue is the source of joy and what is meant when people say that we are “spiritual beings having a human experience.”
Character 4 is your right hemisphere thinking brain. Parallel processing, one with all in the eternal present, adultlike, and nonverbal, Character 4 is your Higher Self. Character 4 loves what is, without fear and without conditions. With only the merest conception of self, there is no need for self-preservation, and thus Character 4 abides in a sense that you are, always and everywhere, profoundly okay.
My friends, these are the voices in your head! Now that you know who they are, you can start listening to them on purpose.
The Solution: Step to the Right. Huddle.
Taylor’s book is called Whole Brain Living – not Right Brain Living or Live in Character 4 All the Time – because each of the characters plays an essential role in human thriving. We do best when we consult the unique perspectives and leverage the unique abilities they each offer.
The challenge is usually that one of the characters is dominating – often a left hemisphere character, due to the left brain’s capacity for language and for hijacking the nervous system.
The solution starts with “stepping to the right.”
- To move from the left hemisphere of the brain to the right hemisphere, enter the present: feel your body; observe your breathing; allow your muscles to relax; focus on the sensory details of this moment. If your nervous system is activated, this will give it some time and space to calm down. Let it take as long as it takes.
Once you’re calm, “huddle” with your characters.
- Call them together and systematically consult each one. Ask Character 1, Character 2, Character 3, and Character 4 in turn, “What do you think? What would you have me do?” Write down their answers. Thank them for contributing.
Now, what’s your takeaway?
- Whose advice feels like the right next step to take? Which character (if any) does it make sense to have out in front on this challenge?
The magic of the huddle is that it gives every Character a voice and values what it offers. When everyone is heard and valued, there is less yelling and jostling for preeminent position. To have four voices also dilutes the power of the most disruptive voice, Character 2. The huddle is a friendly, compassionate, and science-based way to resolve internal conflict so that you can think clearly and act effectively.