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Sezonul 1, Episodul 2 – Călărețul și elefantul din capul fiecăruia dintre noi

Știai că absolut toate deciziile noastre sunt emoționale? Paul ne explică cum și de ce se întâmplă asta, în episodul de azi. În plus, vom afla care parte din creierul nostru călătorește în timp și care parte nu vorbește, pentru că pur și simplu nu știe să vorbească.

 

The Elephant-Rider Metaphor

The conflict within ourselves

It’s well known that humans, whether we are talking about scientists, psychologists or philosophers, have been trying to explain why our mind behaves in mysterious ways. This article focuses on an unexpected discovery that most of our decisions are actually based on emotions, rather than reason.

 

Briefly addressed in our last article, The Triune Brain Theory states that we have three cortical structures that correspond to different periods in evolution: the reptilian and limbic systems, and the neocortex — which is the newest and most complex.

 

However, instead of talking about three parts of the brain — the triune brain — it’s easier to talk about two charactersthat whether we like it or not, live in our heads. It’s a metaphor that Social Psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York’s Stern Business School, Jonathan Haidt, first published it in a book called The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt argues that the human brain is not just an information-processing unit that makes rational decisions, but rather works as an Elephant-Rider unit.

Let’s better understand who these new characters are:

 

The Elephant

Is associated with the reptilian and limbic systems and symbolizes our emotional and intuitive part.

It is hundreds of millions of years old and very strong: precisely because it is so old, the Elephant is a simple primitive creature that does not use or know words, has no verbal functions and is concerned with survival.

It is blocked in the present, lives permanently in the present and it looks after our safety, spotting threats and reacting accordingly.

 

The Rider

Grew on top of the Elephant much later: it represents our neocortex, our rational side and complements the Elephant, mostly because it has all the features the Elephant lacks.

It has the ability to use words, language, and as one of the important differences: it can time travel: remember the past or anticipate the future.

It has superior skills, planning, imagination, problem solving, etc.

 

The Rider works properly only as long as the Elephant is calm.

 

Many people claim that time passes faster once they reach a certain age. That is not just a feeling, but a fact, as children have a very underdeveloped Rider: it evolves until the age of 21–25, so when we are young, we are somehow stuck in the moment because our brain can’t simulate the future very well. As time passes, especially after 25 years, our jobs and responsibilities require much more neocortex than before: we run into complex problems, we need more flexibility. We need to anticipate the future, so we get the feeling that time passes faster as we lose the present.

Further applications

 

Daniel Kahneman, an Israeli psychologist and economist notable for his work on the psychology of judgment anddecision-making, as well as behavioral economics, was awarded the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

 

Briefly explained, he proved that humans have two systems of thinking, and named them System 1 and System 2. System 1 is fast, instinctive and emotional: Freud called it unconscious mind, neuroscience called it limbic system + reptilian brain, while Haidt called it the Elephant. System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical: it is reason as Freud would have said, the neocortex in the triune brain theory, and in Haidt’s metaphor the Rider

 

As a consequence, Kahneman demonstrated that all our decisions, even if they are with the occasional participationof the Rider, are taken by the Elephant, or at least take into account the raw data input that the Elephant provides. This revolutionary theory changed the rules of the game in both economics and psychology, stating that we do not work like computers, balancing some statistics and making the best decision with the available data. We come with a great emotional charge in everything we do. This impacts politics, organizations, votes, changing the culture and the will of the people: all of these require persuading the Elephant, so everyone is trying to gain the attention of the collective elephant.

 

On that account, there is interesting research confirmed by some prosecutors showing that judges give the harshest sentences just before the lunch break, because hunger triggers the Elephant, and the most lenient sentences immediately after their meal, because the Elephant is somehow still sedated.

Understanding key differences

Complexity

The Rider is focused on complex problems, while the Elephant only knows how to solve simple problems. If we take as an example a puppy who is a pure Elephant, it’s clear that it doesn’t have analytical skills, can’t write poems or anticipate the future. But it definitely can run whenever he is outside, when it feels scared or when it smells and sees food. Most of their life is about instinct.

 

Openness

The Rider is flexible and open-minded —the neocortex is the part of our brain that frequently wonders “what if…?” and uses our imagination. In contrast with that, the Elephant is always strict and conservative. An essential example that proves this is when change our home or workplace and don’t pay attention when going to the new location, we may start moving towards the old one. We react in the same manner to any kind of change or novelty we encounter: the different interface of an application we use, or when our partner moved some of our stuff in the house without giving us a heads up, our Elephant instantly lights up its red flags

 

Moreover, the Elephant’s rigidity does not only apply for physical things, but also for faith: if we have a belief has served us for a long time, we are not emotionally willing to change it. That would require a lot of power on our Rider’s side.

 

Pragmatism

The Rider is focused on positivity, it wants us to evolve and wants what’s best for us, while the Elephant is more focused on negative information. It prevents us from feeling unwell: it’s not the negative character though, it’s just very preoccupied with survival

If we are faced with something that our elephant perceives as threatening in a discussion, it immediately wakes up, takes the lead and our desire to communicate fades away. There is a very important concept involved, called emotional hijacking: the Rider loses control, and our complex cognition doesn’t allow us to make rational decisions anymore, mostly because it feels a threat.

Preventing chaos and restoring inner balance 

 

The first important step towards improving our relationships in our lives is to notice when the other person’s lucidity, focus, openness start to disappear, a sign that their Rider has given up. It’s essential to switch the focus from the task to the relationship — proving that we are right and convincing the other should not be a priority anymore. This piece of advice is commonly used in company or personal trainings and coaching, but very few people actually apply this principle. If energy doesn’t move back to our Rider, there’s simply no one there anymore to talk to, biologically speaking.

However, we often reach that point when our own lucidity starts to disappear. Before we run out of mental resources, become completely defensive and lose our awareness, we must hit pause. We need to disconnect from the stimulus, from the conversation, to breathe and focus our attention on something else. Because of that, meditationis a helpful technique: when we focus on breathing there is no emotional charge anymore, so our Elephant calms down and we can re-visit our conversation coherently.

Last but not least, there’s an interesting strategy that is often applied to make sure that the person we have to deal with has a strong Rider. If we have a difficult discussion, a feedback session at the office or whatever implies telling something that others may not want to hear, it’s advisable to schedule it when there are great chances that they keep calm: either in the morning, or preferably when the Elephant is calmer, and that is after we eat

this is an English adaptation of the Mind Architect Podcast audio episode created by Ștefania Simon, also available on Medium