What if we could turn parts of our brain off?

I’ve been exploring Internal Family Systems and “parts work” lately ( And predictably I now see adjacent concepts and frameworks everywhere in my rabbit-hole-digging adventures...

Two weeks ago, I picked up a book that seemingly wasn’t on topic. It was supposed to be the best of neuroanatomy research combined with psychology 101. At face value, it was supposed to be about short-circuiting emotional reactivity.

Turns out “Whole Brain Living” is so much more than that. Written by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard-trained and published neuroanatomist, who experienced a rare form of stroke rendering her unable to walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life, and who used that experience to inform her ensuing research, captured in this book. It took eight years for her to completely recover her physical, emotional, and thinking abilities. Fun fact: her TED Talk about this experience became the very first TED Talk to ever go viral.

The core idea that organizes the entire book is that our brain structure corresponds with four primary “characters”. Those four “characters” are responsible for how we behave, react, and show up in the world.

We have a super anal, judg-y, uptight, perfectionistic “character” who values timeliness, efficiency, and focus. Reminds me a lot of the “Sergeant” that sits in my head. Predictably this character “resides” in the part of the brain called the frontal lobe, which is responsible for many of our higher cognitive functions. This character is stern, inflexible, interrogative, and really preoccupied with getting shit done. It’s also the home of the ego self - i.e. your identity and whatever external source you tie it to.

There’s a reactive, evasive, grudge-holding, belittling, highly emotional “character” who feels all the big feelings - fear, anger, self loathing, shame, guilt, unworthiness, victimization. That’s a part that all of us have. The scared, confused part of us that often cannot name a feeling it is nonetheless, most definitely feeling. While digging into this “character”, I was reminded of the concept of our “Inner Kids”. We all have that emotional kiddo deep in ourselves (whether we’re connected to it or not) and our relationships to the “littler us” tend to be difficult. It’s no surprise perhaps that this “part” is irrational, reactive, and often inarticulate. A lot of that emotional tapestry pre-dates our ability to verbalize, let alone our ability to name or classify. I’m well into my 30s and I am very much still learning the vocabulary of emotions…

And then, there’s the belly-laughing, joyful, present-in-the-moment “character” that doesn’t like planning, loves going with the flow, and enjoys connecting with others. That “character” is timeless, forgiving, heart-connected, playful, and empathic to both joy and pain. This “character” holds space for others and radiates life. Whenever I meet anyone who embodies this “character” in how they show up, I term them “Life Naturals” (in my head, with an invisible an eye roll and a slight scoff…) I’m mostly envious, somewhat annoyed. How dare they be so flow-y when the rest of us are grinding so hard?! This “character” is also who I rediscovered in my sabbatical. It’s also a part of me that I am trying to invite to be my “au pair” in the much-busier, more demanding “life back at work”. It’s the “character” behind little, daily moments like stopping to touch the fuzzy magnolia buds, inhaling the scent of my kids’ hair, taking a few belly breaths between now and the next thing. The strive to be a “Life Natural” is in the DNA of amble.

Finally, there’s a wise, abundant, gratitude-filled, spiritual, sensual character of “oneness” that Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor explains as our higher power and cosmic consciousness. It’s the life force of the universe that resides within each of us. She talks about the experience of stroke - when all her higher functioning drifted away - all that was left was a sense of unity with everything around her. Pure love and connection. That’s the “part” that is omnipotent, authentic, accepting, generous, blissful, and graceful. It’s the “character” that never feels alone, always sees everything as a part of a greater whole. I don’t have a name for this “part” probably because it doesn’t show up frequently enough. This is the peak experience of life that is rare, but profound. Something to work on. How do I bring that part of me out to play more? What should I name it?

The “four characters” correspond to specific parts of the brain and clearly have strong parallels to the “parts work” in IFS. And things get even more interesting when Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor starts talking about the ways in which the interaction between those four characters is essential to a full, satisfying, joyful human experience.

“The most important relationships in our lives are those playing out between the different characters in our minds” - Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor

It’s just like the back and forth between the different “parts of us” that I wrote about two weeks ago. How the “Sergeant” part hurts the “Inner Kid”. How the “Inner Kid” needs to grow up to empathize with the “Sergeant”. How the compassion within that internal system leads to a resolution. And how ultimately the two “parts” seem to need to co-exist in order for the overall system to work.

There’s a part of “Whole Brain Living” that I really enjoyed, so I captured it here for you so you don’t have to read like 300 pages just to get to the meat and potatoes. It’s a few thoughtful prompts to help you reconnect with the four different characters in your brain.

Reflect on each character separately. Reconnect with the feeling of embodying one character at a time - feel that character fully in your body and spirit.

Then reflect on the following questions and capture answers in whatever format suits you (voice memo, note, journal entry, etc.):

  • How do you know when you’re embodying this character?
  • What motivates you to be in this character?
  • How does that character relate to other people?
  • What do you like about this character?
  • What do you dislike about this character?
  • Who are the people in your life who embody that character strongly - i.e. it’s their primary character? How have these people shaped you?
  • Who in your life likes to hang out with this character?
  • Who in your life does not like to hang out with this character?
  • How does this character view and interact with all the other characters?

I’m very satisfied that I could further legitimize the sense that there’s multiples of me, in my head - some are assholes, others are not - and to continue to be OK with that wild concept. Hope this helps any of you feel better about your multiples as well.