It seems like no coincidence that as I write this review of Jill Bolte Taylor's book, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey (Viking, 2008), that Candace Payne—aka Chewbacca Mask Lady—a stay-at-home mom from Texas, has just set a record for the most viewed Facebook Live video to date: as of this writing it has about 136 million views. Her Internet nickname is a misnomer though, because it's not the mask that made this video go viral; it's Candace's infectious, unstoppable and heartfelt laugh. It's the sound of joy.
Taylor would call the action of taking the time to laugh “stepping to the right.” That's the direction she was forced to take after her stroke turned down the volume on her left brain, volume that remained at this level for the eight years it took her to fully recover.
Joy, according to Dr. Taylor, is biologically located in the right brain, the side of Dr. Taylor's brain that continued to function after a powerful and debilitating stroke struck the left side of her brain, where logic and order rule. One could imagine that had Candace created a video to explain the logical decision-making process she used when purchasing the mask, she would not have been asked to appear on Good Morning America. Instead, Candace, the Joy Lady, gave us worldwide permission to quiet our very busy left brains, if only for four minutes and four seconds.
You'll hardly be able to put down Taylor's retelling of her stroke and recovery, a true story of human triumph in astounding circumstances. But you'll stay for much more. What can Taylor's stroke of insight offer us as women in higher education? How can we better harness the creativity, spontaneity, imagination and empathy of our right brains in the workplace and in our personal lives?
Know thy brain
In a recent New York Times essay entitled “Stop Saying ‘I Feel Like’,” Molly Worthen argues that feelings lead to dead ends, and that expressing a feeling instead of a thought could “halt argument in its tracks.” The mind reels as to why that would be a bad thing. Dr. Taylor more effectively distinguishes the types of feelings we experience, all of which are processed in the brain, something critics of feelings seem wont to ignore.
When we drink a soda, we feel fizz on our tongue. That's the first type of feeling, better termed a sensation. Our brain receives and interprets external information from our five senses.
Then there are emotions like sadness and anger. These originate in our limbic brain. That's the second type of emotion, like when you watch Finding Nemo and feel a tug on your heartstrings as Nemo is taken from his father.
Finally, there are the feelings that are generated in the most recent evolutionary addition to our brain, the cerebral cortex. On its right side, the brain generates a feeling known as intuition. It's a type of knowing that comes to us whole without any logical process behind it.
Our right brains, according to Taylor, are where we process nonverbal communications and energy. It's a knowing beyond left-brain reason, but a knowing all the same. This is important and real information that is not to be discounted.
Consider how you view, react to and talk about feelings in the workplace. Do you value your own intuition and that of your colleagues, supervisors or employees?
Take time to ask people what their gut (a colloquialism we use to describe the right brain) is telling them. If the numbers add up around a new project but you still have a sense that you are moving in the wrong direction, bring that feeling to the table.
Also, learn to articulate your right-brain intelligence: “This looks great on paper, but my intuition is telling me that this is a bad idea. Can we take an additional day to consider this?”
Be aware of anyone who attempts to keep feelings out of the conversation. They are likely stuck in what Taylor calls “extreme left-brain” thinking and have lost the ability to use their whole brain.
Notice your loops
Taylor, a neuroanatomist who was working at the Harvard Brain Bank at the time of her stroke, had to start her left brain over from scratch in many ways. When her mother asked Taylor to add one plus one, Taylor sought clarification by asking, “What is a one?”
Meanwhile, in the silence of her left-brain activity, Taylor's right brain flourished and flowed. She reveled in connections and creativity, and in feeling one with the present moment, all of which had been previously living in the shadow of her very active left brain.
Dr. Taylor makes use of an extended analogy that conceptualizes the brain as a computer. As her left brain begins to “come back online” after her surgery and recovery, she begins to notice what she calls “cognitive loops” that had been less visible to her before her stroke.
Our brains, she argues, develop favorite habits. Once established, these habits take on a life of their own. For example, you may decide, as Taylor once had, that you hate a certain vegetable, but upon trying it again at another point in your life, it might become a new favorite. We do this not only with food preferences, but also in how we approach our world, our work and our relationships.
Do you seem to rehash the same disagreements at work? Taylor encourages us to talk back to our brains when we see these loops forming and to notice how they feel in our bodies: “Thanks for that approach but I don't like the way it feels. I'm going to choose a different path now.”
By first noticing our loops, we can next begin to choose new ones, rather than operating from blind habit. What loops are you stuck in at work?
Take your time
You will marvel at Taylor's description of the passage of time during her stroke and how long it took her to be able to call for help. When the right brain is in charge, time works differently, or perhaps better put, there is no time. There is only the now of the present moment.
The left brain is where our sequential concepts of time as past, present and future are born. In our busy left-brain world, the right brain often doesn't have enough time to do its job.
To utilize the full potential of your whole brain, set aside time each day to just be. You may find your being time consists of prayer or meditation. It might also just be silence or breath. The left brain will initially admonish you for not “doing something.” Thank it and carry on with just being.
If you are heavily left-brain-reliant, this will feel like trying to write your name with your nondominant hand … at first. But with practice, you'll come to value this time and reap its rewards.
If you have a big presentation coming up, take time for both left- and right-brain preparation. Your left-brain prep might consist of research, list-making and organizing materials. Your right-brain time will look much different as you focus on letting go and settling into a state of relaxation and flow. Both are critical to your success.
Taylor discusses the importance of bedside manner to her recovery. Because her right brain is very connected to nonverbal experiences and the interaction of energy, she notices that some of her caregivers leave her feeling drained while others give her a sense of peace and motivation. She goes as far as to describe one of her nurses as an “energy vampire.”
Taylor discovers she has a positive reaction when treated positively. When treated negatively or even neutrally, she shuts down to protect herself in her heightened vulnerability.
When you tune into your right brain, you can begin to notice the energy involved in your interactions in the workplace and beyond. Ask yourself who is giving and who is taking energy in all of your interactions.
At one time in my career, I was very left-brain-reliant. I can remember sitting down to meetings without exchanging any pleasantries and diving right into a discussion of whether or not outcomes had been met. In short, I took all the energy in the room and gave none back.
Consider making a point to begin each interaction with staff and students alike with an offering of positive energy while also being wary of encounters where you aren't receiving any energy in return.
What I'm left with after reading My Stroke of Insight is a feeling of empowerment. A friend of mine going through some lifestyle changes recently texted me and said, “Change is so hard.” But with a deeper understanding of the functions and gifts of the brain, both left and right, it seems all the more possible.
Karen Costa has over a decade of experience in both student and academic affairs, in both administrative and teaching capacities. She is currently an adjunct professor teaching online learning strategies to first-year students. She is also a writer, avid reader and certified yoga teacher. Connect with her on Twitter: @KarenRayCosta.