Here is the full transcript of neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor’s TEDx Talk presentation: The Neuroanatomical Transformation of the Teenage Brain at TEDxYouth@Indianapolis conference. She is the author of the book: My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. In this presentation, Harvard-trained and published neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor discusses the neurological transformation of the brain that occurs during the teenage years.
Thank you everyone.
I have brought for you a human brain. So this is a real human brain. And when I look at this brain, I am reminded that we are neurocircuitry. We are neurocircuitry, and every ability we have — we have because we have cells that perform that function.
We know more about the human brain than we’ve ever known before. And we’ve learned things in the last 10 to 20 years — most of your life span — that has completely shifted the way neuroscientists think about this organ and our relationship with it.
When I was in school back in the ‘80s, we were taught that the brain cells you were born with are the brain cells you’re going to die with, and you are not going to get anymore along the way. We do know that our brain is capable of growing some new neurons, and this is neurogenesis.
We are capable of growing new neurons, particularly in response to trauma. In addition, neuroplasticity is the ability of our brain cells to rearrange who they are communicating with. What this means is that the brain you walked in with this morning, is not identical to the brain that you are going to take home with you tonight.
In addition, we understand that we are capable of mindfulness. Mindfulness is our ability to observe the neurocircuitry we are running inside of our heads. But on top of simply observing our neurocircuitry, we are capable of changing our thoughts and changing our brain. We have the ability to pick and choose what’s going on inside of our heads.
So we typically run three types of neurocircuitry. We think thoughts, we stimulate emotions and feel emotions, and we run physiological responses to what we are thinking and what we are feeling. I have the ability to think a thought, stimulate an emotional circuit, and then run a physiological response to what I am thinking.
From the moment I think a thought that stimulates my anger circuit, to the time that I run my physiological response where I dump noradrenaline into my blood stream, it flushes through me and flushes out of me. From the beginning of the thought, to the time where my blood is clean of that chemistry, takes less than 90 seconds. And I call this the 90-second rule.
Now, how many of you have the ability to stay angry for longer than 90 seconds? What you are doing, is you are rethinking the thought that is restimulating the anger circuit, which is restimulating the physiological response, and we can stay mad for days.
Now the bottom line is, I am neurocircuitry. We are neurocircuitry. And my neurocircuitry is my neurocircuitry, and you do not have the ability to stimulate and trigger my circuitry without my permission. You cannot make me angry, unless I stick my trigger out there for you to pound on and stimulate my neurocircuitry. If I give you the power to trigger my neurocircuitry, then I have given you my power. And if I give you my power, then I become vulnerable to you through manipulation, through advertising, through marketing, through peer pressure and through abuse.
Bottom line is, we are neurocircuitry. We are these incredible celled brain filled with these beautiful, beautiful cells.
So how does it work? Stimulation streams in through our sensory systems. It integrates and organizes as it passes up the spinal cord, and it aims for the outer portion of our brain, the cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex is divided into two different groups of cells. Our outer layers, for a higher cognitive thinking, and our inner layers, for emotion. So information streams in through our sensory systems, and it aims directly for the inner group of cells of our limbic system. And the cells in the limbic system are asking the question, moment by moment, “Am I safe?” “Am I safe?”
I feel safe when enough of the information streaming in through the sensory systems feels familiar. When the world feels familiar, my amygdala is calm, and I feel safe. Now the interesting thing is that as information comes in and it stimulates my limbic system, my limbic system then sends that information throughout my nervous system, including my higher cortex. So what this means is that, although many of us may think of our cells as thinking creatures who feel, biologically, we really are feeling creatures who think. We are feeling creatures who think; and this becomes significant in the way we live in the external world.
So information streams in, it goes straight to the amygdala; the amygdala says how much feels familiar, and if it feels familiar, then I feel calm. When I feel calm, the cells right next to that, the hippocampus, they turn on and they are capable of learning and memory.
But let’s say that, all of a sudden, the building should start to shake. Building starts to shake, your amygdala goes unfamiliar, unfamiliar, “Alert, alert, self preservation!”, you bolt out the door, shut down the hippocampus and you don’t care what I have to say anymore, right?
A great example about the relationship between the amygdala and the hippocampus, is test anxiety. We all know what it feels like to have that knot inside of our belly and then our throats get tight and our brains feel like they are going to explode, because everything is moving a million miles an hour and we’re on: “Alert, alert, panic, panic, anxiety, anxiety, oh my gosh!” But the secret here is that I have a higher cortical thinking. I have the ability to consciously choose: “OK, I have other circuits I can run, I can turn on my higher cortical mind, I can bring my mind to the present moment, I can look around, take new pictures, I can see I am safe, I am safe, and I am not going to die. It’s just an exam and I’ve prepared for this and I know some of these answers.”
Now if my amygdala would just calm enough so that I could access that information in my hippocampus, then I could answer the questions. So this is what’s going on. Everything that has anything to do with anything is our relationship between the amygdala and the hippocampus.
Now this is really important news; big news, big news, we didn’t know this. My generation, and generations before me, we did not know about the 90-second rule, and we did not understand the neurocircuitry of the brain. So, all you have to do, is open up the newspaper and you will see someone has killed someone because someone’s amygdala was on alert. Somebody’s divorcing somebody because somebody did not feel safe. Everything has something to do with the amygdala, and I think we should all wear shirts that say, “I love my amygdala.” “I love my amygdala.”
All right. So what is going on with the teenage brain? How many of you have had a parent or an adult say something like this to you in the last few years: “I just don’t recognize you anymore. What happened to my little angel?” How many of you have had that? Yes. There is a biological reason for that.
How many of you have had a parent or an adult say something like: “I don’t understand you. You used to love to do this all the time, and I bought you all these supplies and you just don’t play with this stuff and over again, I don’t get it, what’s going on?” There is a biological reason for that.