Advice

Jill Bolte Taylor: ‘We Have the Power to Choose Who We Want to Be’

May 9, 2016

Watch Jill Bolte Taylor's Butler University commencement speech

Thank you everyone…

My heart thanks Butler University for this honorary degree. I live from my heart, and I live from my mind.

And it is an honor for me to present to you, and it is my duty to bestow some wisdom upon you graduates, but you all are looking pretty wise to me.

You figured out what you needed to do to get here today. So congratulations—it is a great, great day! And congratulations to the families because this is a family affair!

I want you to know that there are a million amazing things about your beautiful brain that I would like to speak with you today about.

However, the number one most important relationship that we have is the relationship we have between the two halves of our brain.

When our two hemispheres like one another, when they respect one another, when they cooperate and nurture and celebrate that they are besties, life is good.

Life is good no matter what is going on around us because life is good within ourselves and we get to bring our whole selves forward.

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We have more power over what’s going on inside our heads than most of us were taught.

And we do have the power to pick and choose, moment by moment, who and how we want to be in the world.

In this moment, is it more appropriate for me to step into the world as my right-brain consciousness? Or in this moment, is it more appropriate for me to lead with my left brain?

So who is who inside of our own heads, and what does that really mean?

In order for any two of us to communicate with one another, we have to share a certain amount of common reality.

Every ability we have, we have because we have brain cells that perform that function.

Read more: Jane Goodall: ‘Remember to Live to Your True Human Potential’

I have the ability to create a sound. “Dog.” Dog is a sound, and your brain has the ability to place meaning on that sound because you have brain cells specifically designed to perform that function.

Now, how many of you, when I said the word “dog,” had a picture of a dog flash though your brain? Raise your hands.

Our right brain thinks in pictures. And it is committed to the present moment—right here, right now experience.

How many of you, when I said “dog”—you actually saw the letters “d-o-g” flash through your mind? Raise your hands.

Our left hemisphere thinks in language, and it is completely committed to communicating with others in the external world.

How many of you, when I said “dog,” you had a picture of a dog that you are familiar with flash through your brain, and you knew that dog’s name? Raise your hands.

You are all thinking bulldogs right now, aren’t you?

Read more: Michelle Obama: ‘Excellence Is the Most Powerful Answer You Can Give’

Our two cerebral hemispheres are constantly working together to manufacture for us a single seamless perception of the world.

However, our two cerebral hemispheres are completely separate from one another in that they do not share any cell bodies.

They communicate with one another through some 300 million axonal fibers of our corpus callosum, so each hemisphere knows whats going on in the other.

But the two hemispheres are structurally separate and they are functionally independent—yet, they remain two halves of a whole.

Each of our cerebral hemispheres perceive different kinds of information from the external world.

Because of this, each of our hemispheres think about different things, they are interested in different things and they are each impassioned with their own emotions—because each hemisphere has its own emotional system.

Each hemisphere has its own amygdala, hippocampus and anterior cingulate gyrus—two halves making up a whole limbic system.

Our two hemispheres are so diverse in what they value, they express themselves in the external world as two completely different personalities and they feel like different characters.

Did you ever wonder how you can be ecstatic that graduation is finally here and yet at the same time feel completely heart-broken because you will be leaving this campus?

It’s all about your brain.

Read more: Anne-Marie Slaughter: ‘Care Is as Important as Career’

When we are born as human infants, we have zero ability to perceive detail. We pop out from the liquid environment of our mother’s womb, and we dive into this atmosphere of atoms and molecules.

You and I are literally swimming in a sea of electro-magnetic radiation. We are swimming in an energy field that we cannot see, but we know that the field is real because science teaches us that there are energy wavelengths buzzing around us, between us and even passing through us.

And this energy field that we live within is much like a parallel universe, and it is the domain of our right hemisphere.

Our right brain character pays attention to the big picture of our lives and to the consciousness of our right mind. We are energy beings having an energy experience.

As I speak, atoms and molecules are in vibration and they beat upon our tympanic membranes like drums.

That vibration of energy then passes through our bony ear ossicles, it moves through a viscous fluid, and there are these tiny little hairs up there dancing in motion. And our auditory nerve then transmutes all that energy into a neural code that is eventually detected as sound.

How amazing is that? We are amazing energy processing machines!

The character of our right mind perceives the world as a collective whole of energy, and it is completely attached to the present moment.
Did you ever wonder how it is that you know where you begin and where you end? Have you? We know the boundaries of our bodies because there is a small group of cells in our left brain that performs that function—it essentially holds a holographic image of our body.

So if you feel comfortable, I would like for you to close your eyes. Now, without moving any of your body parts, what position do you think your right foot is in?

Now, open your eyes, look at your foot, raise your hand if your foot was where you thought it would be.

You giggle, but not everyone can do this because in some people those cells are not functioning.

Because our right brain character sees everything as a single field of energy, it is compassionate with you—and with everyone—because it perceives us all as the same thing.

Our right brain is naturally supportive and empathic and open and expansive because it knows no boundaries. And of course it is creative because it is about the right-here, right-now experience, rather than the product.

And it is not stunted by its own criticism…because our left brain is the master of that.

Our right mind character is fundamentally kind, and it has a terrific sense of humor. It seeks similarities rather than differences, so it is intrigued by our diversity.

Our right brain is our intuitive mind, and it tends to catch the left brain if it tries to tell a lie.

Needless to say, our right brain character is our gentler side. Some call it our feminine intuition, others call it our heart consciousness or our divine or authentic self.

Whatever language you are comfortable with, I encourage you to give your right brain a name. I call mine “Queen Toad.”

Although the character of our right brains are wonderful beings, our left brains are amazing doers. And when deprived of our left-brain skill set, we become completely nonfunctional and incompetent.

Two halves certainly do make up the whole, and whole-brain living, in my opinion, is our ultimate goal.

Our left brains help make us mighty.

Besides bringing language into our lives so we can communicate with one another, our left brain is a master of details, details and more details about those details and it loves to organize and categorize everything!

Our left brain is the domain of all that is familiar, so it approaches life with a preconceived expectation of what it wants and how it wants it to be.

When it’s standards are not being met, it’s more than available to take control and make things right.

Because it is our task master—our left brain is designed to judge and critically analyze everything. It gives us the ability to distinguish between this and that. Is this pink or is it a shade of red?

And then it is our left brain that is our moral judge—what is right, what is wrong? What is good, what is bad? And if anyone needs to be criticized or put in their place, of course our left brain is available for that.

Although our right brain is rather amorphic and intuitively all-knowing, thank goodness our left brain is logical and thinks linearly. There is a method to the madness, at least when the left brain is in control.

Because society functions as a hierarchy, we are always trying to get ahead, so my left brain—it will confront you, it will interrogate you and it will compete with you, whether you are outside of me or you are my own right brain.

And those differences in the way we talk or look or worship, they make our left brain very uncomfortable. And those prejudices can incite war.

You know, there’s really no way for anyone but you to know what it feels like to be inside your head. Our minds, so far, are a private place.

When I experienced my stroke and my left hemisphere went offline, I had the amazing opportunity to sit inside an absolutely silent right brain for five full weeks.

It was so peaceful there and so beautiful, and my whole being welled with gratitude simply because I was alive.

Eventually, my left brain started to come back online, and my small self, my ego self, wanted to be the boss again.

And at that point, my right brain said, “No.” For this half of my life, I choose to lead with love.

My two hemispheres have become excellent friends, and they now enthusiastically participate in my whole-brain living.

Whatever I focus my attention on, that circuitry will grow.

Fortunately, you won’t have to experience a stroke to gain their insight.

As my final note, I am often asked, “But Dr. Jill, how do I know?” “What does it feel like?” “How do I know who I am?” “Which hemisphere I’m in at any moment?” “Which mind am I in?”

And for me, I think this is the litmus test: Our left brain would rather be right than happy. And our right brain would rather be happy than right.

I wish for you the perfect balance! Thank you!

Read more 2016 commencement speeches:

Anne-Marie Slaughter: ‘Care Is as Important as Career’

Barack Obama: ‘Passion Is Vital, But You’ve Got to Have a Strategy’

Condoleezza Rice to Grads: ‘Don’t Let Anyone Else Define Your Passion’

Cory Booker to Grads: ‘Tell Your Truth’

Darren Walker to Grads: ‘Stand For Something’

Earl Lewis: ‘Never Confuse The Attainement of an Education with What It Means to Be Educated’

Eboo Patel to Wake Forest Grads: ‘The Only Shame Is in Stagnation’

Hoda Kotb: ‘You’re the Sum Total of the Five People You Spend the Most Time With’

J.K. Simmons to Grads: ‘Live in the Moment’

Jane Goodall to Grads: ‘Remember to Live to Your True Human Potential’

Lin-Manuel Miranda to Grads: ‘Your Stories Are Essential’

Madeleine Albright: ‘Everyone Must Participate in Solving Shared Problems’

Michael Bloomberg: ‘An Open Mind Is the Most Valuable Asset You Can Possess’

Michelle Obama to Grads: ‘Excellence Is the Most Powerful Answer You Can Give’

Obama to Grads: Building Walls Is ‘A Betrayal of Who We Are’

Russell Wilson: ‘Go Make It Happen’

Sheryl Sandberg: ‘Finding Gratitude and Appreciation Is Key to Resilience’

Vivek Murthy: ‘Live a Connected Life’

William Foege to Grads: ‘Every Day We Edit Our Obituaries’