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The anatomy of choice - learning from a brain explorer

Updated: Aug 6, 2022

The anatomy of choice and huddling our 4 characters

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor ("JBT") is a Harvard-trained Neuroanatomist. She is a very happy and expressive person. But there is much more to JBT. As far as I know, she is the only brain scientist that actually traveled into their brain as an explorer. JBT did this as a result of a stroke. Her first-hand account of her journey is extraordinary.

I have read two of her books. The first is called My Stroke Of Insight. This is the book that chronicles her brain exploration. More recently I read Whole Brain Living: The Anatomy of Choice and the Four Characters That Drive Our Life. This is a follow-up book that implements many of the learnings from her exploration experience.

For me, I was particularly taken by My Stroke Of Insight because of the prioritized order of emphasis her extraordinary story was told:

  1. Exploration

  2. Science

  3. Learnings

  4. Self-help-oriented personal application

I'm the kind of reader that likes to learn from others' exploration and science, connect the dots with other learnings, then apply the updated set of knowledge to my life. (1) I liked Whole Brain Living. I will admit, the order of emphasis in Whole Brain Living was reversed for me. This was ok as I consider these 2 books as companions. I recommend reading My Stroke Of Insight first.

In Whole Brain Living, I especially appreciated the 4 characters model JBT describes as the unique “selves” that exist in our brain. Her model is related to Carl Jung's 4 archetypes model. You may recognize Jung as his research is the basis of the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator personality testing.

I think of the 4 characters as described by a 4 box matrix along 2 brain dimensions. The first dimension is described by 1) the evolutionary older emotion-focused Limbic System, and 2) the evolutionary younger analytically-focused Cerebral Cortex. The second dimension is described by 1) the serial processing (past-present-future) and chatty Left Hemisphere and 2) the parallel processing (in the present) and quiet Right Hemisphere. (2) Below is the descriptive graphic from her book.

JBT encourages the reader to name and describe their 4 characters. I did this and it was very helpful to internalize the learnings. I also think it is helpful how JBT describes our thinking process:

"Although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think."

Think of our Cerebral Cortex, especially our executive functioning abilities as a control that oversees the Limbic-based emotions. The emotions come first and are guided by the thinking part of our brain. Next is the description of my 4 characters, names, and all! I would certainly encourage you to check out JBT‘s books and describe your characters.

Inspired from JBT's Whole Brain Living - Jeff Hulett's 4 Characters:

Character 1 - Harley - He is like the soft-spoken but incredibly chatty and persistent "hell on wheels," detective in the old T.V. show Dragnet. He is focused, cold, gets it done kind of person. He has high expectations. Harley is the epitome of a “just the facts, ma'am,” kind of guy. Harley is best when able to focus on facts. He is good at using the past to forecast the future. He is able to narrowly focus. He is good at planning. He is good at thinking by analyzing temporally-based information. Harley likes to narrowly define me as an individual.

Character 2 - Anthony - Anthony may best be described as "Anti-Corinthian," or a "recorder of wrongs." (From the Bible’s New Testament, 1 Corinthians 13) Anthony considers reconciliation as a weakness. (3) His defining characteristics are stress, fear, anger, resentment, and tribalism. Anthony is likely to out-group and is driven by the brain chemical (neurotransmitter) oxytocin. Anthony makes use of Harley’s analytical ability, but to confirm possible negative outcomes. The error of omission-related logical fallacies and confirmation bias cognitive bias are exemplar outcomes of Anthony’s work. Anthony is a great warning signal. While sometimes Anthony is overly pessimistic in his assessment, he is a source of protection and warning.

Character 3 - Curly - Curly is very curious and childlike. He brings curious energy and joy. He can easily go down rabbit holes. Exploration is one of Curly’s great strengths. Curly feeds off positive feedback and is driven by the brain chemical (neurotransmitter) dopamine. His best work gets done when not time-constrained. In fact, Curly genuinely doesn’t understand time. He sees a calendar reminder as both good and bad. Bad because it can interrupt the flow state, but good because he feels safe when he has committed time-space to freely explore curiosity. Curly likes Harley because he has access to all the cool stuff in memory that can be brought to the here and now. But he ignores Anthony when he is critical. Curly strives to get the best from Harley and leave the rest behind.

Character 4 - Sidney - Sidney is my systems thinker. Sidney connects the dots across an ever-expanding network. Sidney is incredibly adaptable and sees failure as a building block of a successful process. Sidney loves to work with Harley. Sidney appreciates Harley as a strong tool, providing the building blocks for the system. Sidney appreciates Anthony as a great warning signal. While the signals are sometimes false, Sidney knows never to ignore Anthony and feels safe because of Anthony. Basically, Anthony worries so Sidney doesn’t have to. Sidney loves Curly’s curiosity, this energy and desire to dive down every rabbit hole are powerful. Sometimes Curly has to be asked to hold off or pointed to a different rabbit hole. Sidney is quiet but amazingly persistent. Sidney’s happy place is the flow state. (4) Sidney loves Harley, Anthony, and Curly deeply and unconditionally. Sidney is a very appreciative character. Sidney seeks to increase connection with the larger universe. In fact, Sidney doesn’t understand the difference between me and the larger universe the way Harley does.

Finally, I appreciate JBTs idea of a "Brain Huddle." That is, bringing together your 4 characters in a way to make good decisions or react appropriately to others. It is important to understand where each character is coming from and make a good decision with all the information your brain has to offer.

Also, this model may be used to understand the characters from a co-worker, family member, or friend that may be expressing themselves. I've come to recognize my wife's character 2. I experience her character 2 as tough and emotionally ruthless. Her character 2 may signal risks worthy of exploration. It is helpful to know how to work with my wife's character 2 and know that her character 2 does not define her as a whole person. We get along better because we understand each other’s characters better!

By the way, my call out of Curly’s and Anthony’s driving neurotransmitters is contextually correct but only part of the picture. The brain is incredibly dynamic. Our neurotransmitters mix in unique, situationally specific ways. The following are references to learn more:


(2) See Our Brain Model for more information

(3) I have come to appreciate many religious teachings are centered upon controlling Character 2. For example, the Holy Sacrament of Reconciliation from the Catholic Church encourages us to recognize when we harm others and to make it right. Conceptually, this is a control to manage our Character 2. Many other religions have a similar Reconciliation practice.

(4) For a related description of Flow State, along with examples from sports, business, and science, please see my article Soccer Brain - the making of the beautiful game


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