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Manage Your Four Characters: Judgy, Anxious, Friendly, Open

Your conscious, analytical self is not alone.

Key points

  • Neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor draws more insights from her left brain stroke.
  • Our brain has different characters that we can coordinate.
  • Our moral mindsets shift and guide our behavior.
  • It can be a useful tool to learn different perspectives on the complexity of our self.

Some years ago, neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor had a stroke due to an unknown congenital brain disorder. She recognized that it was on the left side of her brain, as over a few hours she lost her capacities to talk, walk, read, write, and remember her life. She spent months existing nonverbally in her right brain functions. She wrote a book about her experience and produced a popular TED talk.

Taylor has a new book, Whole Brain Living: The Anatomy of Choice and the Four Characters that Drive Our Life, that directs us toward balancing four “characters” that emerge from our left and right brain functions. The left brain characters are more recent in our evolution, moving us out of the constant connectedness the right brain characters experience.

Left Thinking Character 1 is the character with which we are most familiar. It is the conscious, ego-centered self that psychologists tend to measure. Character 1 is conscious, verbal, judgmental, linear, analytical, focused on details, difference, and precision, and busy. This is the seat of “reason” that Western European culture of the last few centuries views as uniquely human. Western culture’s schooling educates this character.

The left brain has an emotional side too, which she calls Left Emotional Character 2. This character is also familiar to us, as it pops up when we are afraid or feel threatened. This character is rigid and constricted, doubtful and cautious but righteous, manipulative and selfish, perceiving the world in black/white, right/wrong, good/bad, superior/inferior. The Biblical Pharisees and Sadducees displayed this character. But Taylor says:

“Character 2 is our superhero because it was so mighty that it was willing to shift out of the known, away from the familiar, away from its connection with God, the Infinite Being, the cosmic consciousness—whatever you are comfortable calling it—to exist in a whole new realm of consciousness as an isolated individual.” (pp. 82-83)

When we are triggered, this is the character that tries to protect us, but it also impairs our thinking and our flexibility. When we are toxically stressed when we are young children or when later (unhealed) trauma causes PTSD, this character may emerge easily, because we feel threatened routinely. She reminds us that when a feeling of anger, fear, panic occurs, it will disappear after 90 seconds if we don’t attend to it. Otherwise, with attention, it can stick around for a long time.

The right brain has two characters also. These are less emphasized and may be largely dormant in work-oriented societies. Right Emotional Character 3 is expansive, open, and creative, friendly and fearless, oriented to sharing and equality, loves unconditionally, contextualizes, trusts and supports others. This character emerges when we feel safe and comfortable with the others around us. This is the kind of personality that anthropologists find outside of civilization (e.g., Sorenson, 1998). It is a prosocial personality associated with those who have a supportive early life that generates the neurobiology that accompanies secure attachment (Schore, 2019). To activate this character, do something experiential, something that engages your sense of humor.

Right Thinking Character 4 is not verbal or conscious. It thinks experientially and in images; it perceives holistically, focuses on the present-moment flow of time and connecting with others; it is compassionate and open to possibilities, thinking on a holistic level. These capacities are apparent in wise elders (Four Arrows & Narvaez, in press), monks and skilled meditators. The key to activating this character is practicing ways to silence Characters 1 and 2. For Character 1, this feels like death even though it is not; it is going with the flow.

Taylor points out how the left brain cannot detect what the right brain understands.

How the Four Characters Relate to Morality

In my integrative work, I’ve identified multiple moral mindsets that we shift in and out of (Narvaez, 2008, 2014). Taylor’s four characters align with these mindsets.

Left Thinking Character 1 has a hard side, without emotion, and guards Character 2. When it dominates moral behavior, it is emotionally and relationally detached. It can be a dangerous morality because the individual can devise all sorts of abstract ideas and plans without taking into account their effects on others. The ego-consciousness of Character 1 is notorious for its narrow but forceful impact on the world (McGilchrist, 2009). Taylor says that there is a soft side to Character 1 that can be kind and a good team organizer.

Taylors’s description of Left Emotional Character 2 combines two kinds of moral self-protectionism that emerge from feelings of threat (Narvaez, 2014). The aggressive aspect (“fight”) is oppositional and domineering, feeling safe only when on top. The passive aspect (“freeze”) is withdrawn psychologically, feeling safer in subordination. These are stances that authoritarian societies prefer; neither is helpful for forming a democracy.

The two right brain orientations are what the mystical traditions of world religions emphasize (Huston, 1991). After her first-hand experience, Taylor favors these as well. Notice how these lack the tribalism of the Left Characters.

The moral stance of Right Thinking Character 3 is engagement with others, relationally attuned and flexible in a cooperative flow of life. This is more common among collectivist and egalitarian traditional societies (Narvaez, 2013; Sorenson, 1998).

Right Emotional Character 4 expands the social connectedness of #3 into a communal imagination, an inclusive orientation undergirded by an ongoing sense of oneness.

Whole Brain Living

According to therapists and neuroscientists who study how the hemispheres behave, it is best to have an integrated brain rather than shift from one character. to another (e.g., McGilchrist, 2009; Siegel & Bryson, 2012; Tweedy, 2021).

For those whose brain does not habitually work in an integrated manner (most people in modern societies), Taylor suggests a BRAIN huddle:

  • Breathe to interrupt emotional reactivity
  • Recognize which character is active.
  • Appreciate the active character and know that you can access all characters at any given time.
  • Inquire and invite all four characters to discuss your next move.
  • Navigate a new reality.

Throughout the text, Taylor offers self-assessments to help the reader recognize their characters and when they arise. She describes what these characters look like in different situations (e.g., body, work, romantic relationships, addictions).

References

Four Arrows, & Narvaez, D. (in press, 2022). Indigenous Voices Introduce 28 Precepts for Re-balancing Life on Planet Earth. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

Smith, H. (1991). The world’s religions: Our great wisdom traditions. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco.

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The master and his emissary: The divided brain and the making of the western world. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Narvaez, D. (2008). Triune ethics: The neurobiological roots of our multiple moralities. New Ideas in Psychology, 26, 95-119. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.newideapsych.2007.07.008

Narvaez, D. (2013). The 99%--Development and socialization within an evolutionary context: Growing up to become “A good and useful human being.” In D. Fry (Ed.), War, peace and human nature: The convergence of evolutionary and cultural views (pp. 643-672). New York: Oxford University Press.

Narvaez, D. (2014). Neurobiology and the development of human morality: Evolution, culture and wisdom. New York: Norton.

Schore, A.N. (2019). The development of the unconscious mind. New York: W.W. Norton.

Siegel, R.D., & Bryson, T.P. (2012). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child's developing mind. New York: Bantam.

Sorenson, E.R. (1998). Preconquest consciousness. In H. Wautischer (Ed.), Tribal epistemologies (pp. 79-115). Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

Taylor, J.B. (2021). Whole brain living: The anatomy of choice and the four characters that drive our life. Carlsbad, CA: Hayshouse.

Tweedy, R. (Ed.) (2021). The divided therapist: Hemispheric differences and contemporary psychotherapy. London: Routledge.

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