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We commonly hear things like “We only use 10% of our brains” and “The brain is divided into the emotional right brain and our rational left brain.” But is that true, or just myths passed down as facts from generation to generation? Our brains make us who we are, but science knows surprisingly little about arguably the most important organ we have.
Join us as today’s guest, neuroanatomist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, explains what’s fact and fiction when it comes to our gray matter, and delves into what, if anything, was so special about Einstein’s brain.
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor 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 8-year recovery spent 63 weeks on the New York Times nonfiction best seller 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, 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. Find out more at: DrJillTaylor.com.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Welcome to this week’s episode of Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast. I’m your host, Gabe Howard, and I want to quickly thank our sponsor, Better Help. You can get a week free simply by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral.
Calling into the show today, we have Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. Dr. Jill 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 number one book about stroke on Amazon. Dr. Jill, welcome to the show.
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor: Gabe, it is great to be with you. Thank you.
Gabe Howard: You are very welcome. I love movies, especially science fiction, and when it comes to anything, pop culture writers are willing to stretch the truth and make stuff up to get it to fit the storyline. Now, since it’s fiction, it seemingly isn’t that big of a deal. I do honestly believe that deep down, we all know there isn’t a space station with enough firepower to blow up a planet. But those same movies take liberties in more subtle areas and try to explain how the brain works. And they do this to explain things like artificial intelligence or cyborgs. And largely these explanations contain about as much fact as space stations blowing up planets. The difference is people believe some of these fictional plot points are actually facts. The biggest one, I believe, that’s out there is that humans only use 10% of their brains. Dr. Jill, is this true?
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor: No, it’s not true. Neurons are these magnificent living organisms that communicate in networks, and if it’s alive and it’s in your head, you’re using it. But that goes all the way back to William James in 1907 said something about, and he’s the father of psychology, so one would think he would know, but it was 1907 after all. So he said we are not using our full potential and somehow or another that got translated into we’re only using a small percentage of our brain and as a neuroanatomist it kind of drives me nuts because we use this magnificent organ all the time and it’s massive and it’s filled with these beautiful cells. So. So no, if it’s alive and it’s in your head, you’re using it.
Gabe Howard: You know, the brain is fascinating to me, not just because of my own struggles with my own brain, which are well-documented, but because it’s fascinating that something so important is so unknown by medical science,
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: Even in my lifetime, leaps and bounds. And I understand why there’s so much misinformation, because we’re just desperate to know that you can see where, like you said back in 1907, somebody said one thing and poof, over 100 years later, we still believe it. That’s a long time for a rumor to persist.
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor: Right, especially when they knew so little about the brain then compared to what we know now.
Gabe Howard: Right. And considering we still consider ourselves to know so little about the brain.
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor: Exactly.
Gabe Howard: Now, as a society, we have also been taught that our left brain is our rational thinking brain while our right brain is our emotional brain. Is that true?
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor: No, that’s not true either. So it is true that the left thinking tissue is our rational thinking brain, but our emotional system is the cells of the limbic system, and those cells are evenly divided between both of our hemispheres. So we have an amygdala, a hippocampus, an anterior cingulate gyrus. Those are the structures of our emotional system in each of our hemispheres. They process the same information, but they process it in really different ways.
Gabe Howard: One of the things that I think about is like brain scans, you know, CAT scans, MRI’s, running your brain through the computer. And as somebody who lives with bipolar disorder, I think, doesn’t my brain look different from other people’s brains? And the answer seems to be largely no. Do all brains look alike no matter how intelligent or creative or even things like psychological factors like addiction or mental illness? Do all brains just look the same?
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor: From an anatomical perspective, we all have the same brain cells inside of our brain, but brains are connected in circuits. And then every ability that we have, we have because we have brain cells running and circuits that are being triggered. The question then that you’re asking is, are all brains connected and wired similarly? Similarly, yes. But the same? No. And one of the things about neurons is that the more you think a thought, the more you run a emotional circuit, whatever that circuit is, the stronger that circuit becomes so that it can then begin to run on automatic. My brain is going to be very specific in the kinds of things that it does based on how I live my life and what I do in my world, in which circuits I exercise and you have a different life. So you’re going to have different experiences and those circuits in your brain are going to get stronger. Do we have the ability then to learn new things and to switch out which circuits we’re running? Yes, we do. That’s called learning. So all brains will have the same cells and basic structure. But when it comes to actual performance and behavior, thoughts and ideas, that’s going to depend on what we’re using inside of ourselves.
Gabe Howard: Switching gears ever so slightly, I understand that you have this concept called whole brain living. Can you tell us about that?
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor: Yes, so when you consider that the human brain, the limbic system, the emotional system is divided evenly between two hemispheres, and when evolution happens in the mammalian nervous system, new tissue gets added on top of that. So the human brain has these higher cortical thinking centers of our neocortex or new cortex. So we have two emotional modules of cells, one in each hemisphere. The right hemisphere processes the present moment experience. So the right hemisphere emotion is going to be about the right here right now emotion. What does it feel like for me to be in my clothing and how does that feel on my body? What is the temperature of the air? What am I seeing? What am I hearing? The experience of the present moment experience. But my emotions are of my past and my future are then in the emotional group of cells in my left hemisphere. If I feel guilty, I feel guilty about something in the past. If I feel resentment, it’s because of something that has happened in the past and I’m carrying that across time. The right and left hemispheres have these two modules of emotion and then these two modules of thinking. And again, the left hemisphere thinking is that rational brain that interacts with the external world. It knows my name, it knows my address, it knows my phone number, it makes me punctual. It likes to create order. It likes to control people, places and things. But the thinking tissue in my right brain is, again, of the experience of the present moment. So we have these four very different modules of cells making up our brain and whole brain living is getting to know each of those groups of cells so that we then have the power to choose, moment by moment, which of those modules of cells, which of those characters, if you will, we then live our life as.
Gabe Howard: So we do have control to change the way our brains work?
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor: Absolutely. You know, it’s kind of like you can know how to drive a car, but you don’t know anything about the engine. Right? But when you know about the engine, then you can get better performance out of the engine when you’re driving it. So the same thing is going to be with your brain. Right now, you can put your brain, can put your mind, your consciousness in this moment, in your past. And you can tell me what you had for breakfast. What did you have for breakfast, Gabe?
Gabe Howard: You know, I had a pop tart, which I hope my mom isn’t listening because she would just be ashamed.
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor: Ok, in order for you to be able to go into the past, you had to use your left hemisphere. The right hemisphere doesn’t know anything about the past. Right hemisphere knows what the experience is right now. So right now, tell me how much humidity is in the air where you are. What does it feel like?
Gabe Howard: I mean, I just feel, it feels very warm in my house.
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor: Yes, OK, so you’re now bringing your mind to the present moment and making an assessment. Now the judgment and the organization of the facts and the details is your left brain rational thinking, but the experience of feeling or an adrenaline rush, if you’re out doing something and you’re feeling the adrenaline rush is your right brain. The beauty of the brain at this point is we know that the right hemisphere isn’t one thing and the left hemisphere is the other thing and you’re right or you’re left. What we know is that there are these billions of circuits, but we also have this magnificent corpus callosum, which is some three hundred million fibers going from one hemisphere to the other. And most of those fibers are inhibitory. So a group of cells in your left brain can inhibit the comparable group of cells in the right hemisphere or vice versa. So at any moment in time, your brain is all lit up because you’re using different circuits in all those different parts at the same time. But each of those different four parts is very specific in the skill set that they produce and the way that it feels to actually embody that part of ourselves.
Gabe Howard: And we’ll be right back after a word from our sponsors.
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Gabe Howard: We’re back discussing the brain with neuroanatomist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. It’s incredible to consider how all of this works, because our brain is the epicenter of what makes us people and on one hand and doing some preparation for the show, I ran across the series of articles about Albert Einstein’s brain and how he donated it to science and how they’ve done just a lot of research on it, the physical brain.
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: And they seem to have come up with this idea that it’s basically just a brain. Wasn’t his brain bigger? I mean, people always say check out the big brain on. He’s a genius. His brain is huge. And then I’m reading all of these articles after article after article. It’s just like an average brain, average size. It was squishy. And I’m thinking to myself, well, now wait a minute. You know, Albert Einstein’s brain had to be different.
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor: Yes.
Gabe Howard: But what you’re saying is, is that it was different, just not the parts that we can see and touch.
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor: Actually, when they did the pathology on his brain, what they identified was, so picture a brain and picture the neuron and the neuron’s the primary cell of the nervous system. And so we all have these some eight hundred billion neurons and they’re sitting in position. They’re the big ones who are communicating in network. But then packed in around them are these tiny little cells called glial cells. And there’s about 10 times more glial cells than there are neurons. So the glial cells actually pack themselves all around the neurons and protect the neurons. They do all kinds of things. They keep the balance in what we call the extracellular space. You’ve probably heard about the blood brain barrier. Well, blood, if it comes in direct contact with neurons, is toxic to a neuron. It will kill that neuron. That’s why when we have hemorrhaging, neurons die because it’s toxic to them. It’s poison, it kills them. So the glial cells actually go and they attach to the blood vessels. The neurons go to the glial cells and say, hey, I need more calcium or I need more magnesium or I need more whatever, sodium and send then the glial cells reach to the blood vessels and say, hey, we need some of that. They take it out of the blood and then they give it like a supporting cells to those neurons.
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor: So what they identified with Einstein’s brain was that, yes, it was a normal sized brain, but he had a lot more glia, significantly higher numbers of glia between those neurons. And so the brain was packed together tightly. And we don’t know everything about what these glial cells do. We know they do a lot. They nurture the neurons. They protect the neurons. They also provide the perfect potassium sodium balance so that neurons can have action potentials, which is how they have an electrical relationship with one another. So they’re completely necessary. What that meant was Einstein’s brain was more dense, it was more densely packed and really, Gabe, the difference between a smart brain and a brain that’s not as smart is the neurons. If you got a bunch of neurons and they’re not talking to one another, then you don’t have networks of neurons communicating and learning and growing. But if you’ve got neurons that are really synaptically connected to one another, then now we’ve got a network. And now information about that can associate with information over here. And it’s like, oh, those two things kind of like work together. What do I think about that? So there were some significant differences in Albert Einstein’s brain pathologically.
Gabe Howard: This is all so incredibly fascinating, and I think in that explanation, you used more words that I have no idea what they mean than in any
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor: I’m sorry.
Gabe Howard: Other interview on the show. And that’s really a good thing, right? Because our brains should be complicated. I think I’d be a little more worried if I was just like, oh, I have zero training and I’m not a doctor. I never went to school. And I understand perfectly. I want to point out that we don’t have time to delve into all of that. But it’s important to understand that our brains are incredibly complicated and we don’t understand a lot about them. And yet we understand an incredible amount about them and we’re learning more as research goes on. Is that sort of a fair statement?
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor: That is a fair statement, and I’d also like to point out then that how we treat our brain is critically important, including how much sleep we give it, what nutrition we give it, and what kinds of trauma we give it. So taking care of the brain is critically important. And so sleep is really, really important at the level of the cells in the brain.
Gabe Howard: I know that a lot of the questions that we asked at the beginning of the podcast were about the physical structures and working of the brain, which has me sitting here thinking, can psychology affect the physical structures of the brain? Or vice versa? Can the physical structures of the brain impact psychology? I’ve got myself stuck in this little bit of a loop about who is driving the brain bus?
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor: Right. That’s absolutely true. The brain is this magnificent collection of cells and the thoughts that we think and the emotional circuits that we run are all cellular circuits, everything that we’re experiencing when we feel anxiety or when we feel love, we’re feeling that because we’re running specific cellular networks inside of the brain. And then the more we run that circuit, the more we experience those emotions or those feelings or we have those thoughts. The brain is this fertile ground and then our thoughts and ideas we can change through purposefully exploring. Those are thoughts I don’t want to think anymore. I broke up with that person and now I don’t want to think about them anymore, because every time I think about them, I get angry or I have a broken heart or I’m sad or I become rageful. And so I don’t want to think about that. So what do I do? I think about other things. And so we have the ability to purposefully direct our focus and our concentration on other things and those other things circuits then will then grow. And the ones that we think less, those will become weaker. So it’s this magnificent combination of we are not a fixed thing, but we have these magnificent cells running and circuits and we have a lot more power over what’s going on inside of our head than we have ever been trained. It’s just this beautiful, beautiful life experience.
Gabe Howard: Dr. Jill, thank you so much for being here. Now, if folks want to learn more, I understand that you have a great book out and, of course, where can folks find you?
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor: Thank you, Gabe. The title of the book is “Whole Brain Living: The Anatomy of Choice and the Four Characters That Drive Our Life.” And you can find that on Amazon. And for more information about me, you can find that at DrJillTaylor.com.
Gabe Howard: Thank you, Dr. Jill, and a huge thank you to all of our listeners. Wherever you downloaded this podcast, please follow the show. It’s absolutely free. Also, take a moment to review the show, use your words and tell other people why they should tune in. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” as well as a nationally recognized public speaker who would love to be at your next event. You can grab a signed copy of my book or learn more about me just by heading over to my website at gabehoward.com. I’ll see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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