Thursday, November 20, 2008

The 90 Second Rule

I wrote a little about Jill Bolte Taylor's book My Stroke of Insight in a previous post and I continue to talk about it with anyone who will listen. The part that most excites me currently is what she calls the "90 Second Rule".

Usually when one feels an emotion, whether it's joy or sorrow, it is because the limbic system has been triggered by the sensory systems. The feeling seems automatic - you see someone abusing a child and you feel angry, you hear a child laugh and you feel happy - and often it is. But the time it takes for your limbic system to be triggered, for the chemicals (what we feel as emotions) to be released and dissolved in your blood stream takes 90 seconds.

That means if you are feeling good or bad (because we have a lot of names for our feelings, but there are really only those two) for longer than a minute and a half it is because you have chosen to feel that way. In physiological terms, you are continuing to hook into your neurocircuitry rather than be in the present moment.

I love knowing this so much because finally I feel like I have the last piece of the puzzle I've been trying to put together since I read the (for me) life-changing books Loving What Is and A New Earth. They both clearly articulate that all events are neutral but it is our story about the events that create our happiness or our suffering.

For me this made theoretical sense but it was sometimes hard to put into practice. Especially when things don't always seem neutral - like in the case of abuse. Last week, I went in to an exam room to see a patient and her child was climbing on the stool and tearing up the paper on the exam table and the woman was yelling at her son to stop and grabbed him roughly and the child started to cry. The mom yelled at him some more.

At first I was upset - for 90 seconds - and then I could see that both the mom and son were having a hard time. And in that moment I felt empathy for the mom and smiled at her and said, "I know you both have been waiting a long time to see me and I'm sorry for the wait. I think it's especially hard for kids to wait without anything else to do. Can he get up on this chair and stand next to me while I check on the baby? He can hold the measuring tape and the doppler." This worked well and we had a great visit.

Of course, I find it most challenging to apply the 90 second rule in relation to the people closest to me, like my husband. Just last night I was tired from being up all night the previous night on call. I asked dh if he had done something I had asked him to do and he hadn't. I was annoyed and in a bit of a stink for more than 90 seconds. Fortunately after a few turns around my negative neural loop I became aware that I could stop feeling bad.

I knew in that moment that I couldn't stop feeling bad and think of the problem with my husband so I put my attention on my son who was very happy and excited about a little trip we were about to take. I decided to put my focus on my son and got us in the car. After just a few minutes in the car, chatting with ds and listening to fun kid music, I felt much better and even saw a solution to the problem with my husband that I had not seen before. When we got back I felt great and was able to tell dh I was sorry for my fit of peak and we quickly resolved the problem.

Not only is Jill Bolte Taylor brilliant, she also has a great sense of humor. She says that she whole-heartedly believes that 99.999 percent of the cells in our brains want us to be happy. But a tiny portion of our cells do not have our best interest at heart. She calls them the "Itty Bitty Shitty Committee". These are the cells that are very good at giving us lots of reasons why we are right to be angry, resentful and less-than-generous.

And just like parents and children who have been cooped up in a small exam room for too long, you can feel some empathy for those confused cells, take them in hand and give them something else to do. You become very good at re-directing and focusing on what is going well. I think of it as a discipline, like learning a foreign language and exercising, and it becomes easier and more automatic with practice.

It is so fantastic to know that I have the ability to choose a positive feeling. I can always choose to tell a different story. I can always bring my thoughts back to the present moment where all of my power is. And now I feel like I have all the tools I need to do just that.


Aurelio e Wendy said...

Stacey thank you so much for your thoughts! I love the itty bitty shitty committee - that describes it in a nutshell!

mlg said...

There was an amazing talk this year at TED by Jill Bolte Taylor, and it is still on the TED video site: go to

You must see it. There are hundreds of other amazing people giving mind-blowing 20-minute-or-less speeches that promote new worlds of thinking in Technology, Entertainment, and Design fields (i.e., TED).

Cheers, happy new year, and thanks for Freecycling!


FOO said...

Hi Marni! Thanks so much for visiting my blog! I'm so glad you could make use of the dog food.

And it's so funny you posted about the JBT's TED talk because another friend just sent me a link to it today. I actually first saw it over a year ago and was amazed and inspired and that led me to read her book. A friend of mine has my copy now, but if you'd like to read it I'd be happy to pass it on to you when I get it back. All the best! Stacey