The Rational and Emotional Brain Battle

I’m going to go off on a tangent for this post; it’s completely unrelated to food, but very much related to health and well-being. I am watching a really interesting documentary called “This Emotional Life” on Netflix this week. It was first aired on PBS in January of 2010. That’s what made me think of this post.

The second episode (I will get to the first one later) is called Facing Our Fears.


Overview of the Rational and Emotional Brains

The main topics in the segment are anger, fear, anxiety, and despair. Every human feels these emotions. So how do we deal with them? And why do we feel them? Apparently we have two parts of our brain; one is quite ancient and the other is fairly new. The older part (this part has been around since brains first developed) is the emotional part. The newer part is the rational brain. Unfortunately they don’t always get along very well.

Many many years ago, our emotional brain protected us from lions and tigers and bears (oh my!). Today our emotional brain protects us from angry cab drivers and rude people that cut in front of us in the line at the grocery store. We don’t need the same reaction for rude people as we do for bears. But (unfortunately) our brains do have that same reaction anyway.

Humans are still evolving, so maybe over time the communication and the relationship between these two parts of our brain will improve. But for now…

A Brain Metaphor

Earlier this year I went to see an acupuncturist. He gave me some very solid advice in the form of a metaphor.

The Brain as an Elephant…

Pretend that the two parts of your brain are an elephant and a rider. There is an end destination that they have to get to. The rider has to figure out how to get the elephant to that destination. There are lots of roads, but none of them lead where they need to go. To get to the destination, they have to forge a new path.

Some roads are already paved but do not lead anywhere worthwhile. Some of them just go off to randomness and others lead towards bad, scary places. The rider and the elephant should not take those roads, even though they are smooth and paved, because those roads don’t go to the right place.

If you didn’t figure it out already, the rider is the rational brain and the elephant is the emotional brain.

Day 1.

The rider starts to guide the elephant into the woods to make a new path. The elephant gets scared. The rider beats the elephant and the elephant refuses to go further. Maybe the elephant starts going in the wrong direction. The more the rider beats the elephant, the more the elephant resists. The rider gives up for the day and they both sleep.

Day 2.

The next day, the rider again tries to get the elephant to go into the woods. The elephant remembers the beating from the day before and associates it with the woods. He refuses again. At this point the rider will either beat the elephant, or soothe the elephant and let him stay where he is. If the rider beats the elephant, the elephant will run, spooked, down the paved road that leads nowhere good. If the rider calms the elephant, they stay where they are.

Day 3.

Let’s say the rider did not beat the elephant again. Now the elephant is remembering that maybe it is okay to go in the woods. Yesterday the rider was nice; maybe he will be nice again. The elephant is not fully at ease though, because the rider beat him a few days ago. Maybe they make it 10 feet. The elephant is still scared of the rider and hesitant.

And beyond.

Over time, the rider can choose to beat the elephant repeatedly and get nowhere (or go backwards, or go towards somewhere bad) OR the rider can choose to comfort the animal and treat him well. The elephant reacts the the way the rider treats him. The rider must realize that because he beat the elephant in the past, the elephant is not going to trust him for a while.

The elephant’s reactions are automatic and unconscious.

The rider is conscious and rational.

Our emotions are like the elephant, and our rational brain is like the rider. If we want to tame our emotions, we cannot beat them up first. We have to accept them, and only then can we begin to convince them to do what we want.

Beating the elephant is like beating yourself up for something that your unconscious did (or “made” you do). It is not helpful and not productive. Accept whatever it is about yourself that you don’t like – and then you can start to change it.


Do your rider and elephant get along?

10 Replies to “The Rational and Emotional Brain Battle”

  1. I like the metaphor and it’s so true that many times we tend to beat ourselves and feeling aweful when we know that doing that is not helpful and it goes nowhere, but we still do unfortunately. 🙁

  2. An absolutely wonderful post.

    I’ve found the way to make an ally of the elephant – the way to get the elephant to go in the direction of my genuine will – is to inspire the elephant; one, by letting it know just how wonderful it is and how much I recognize and appreciate its great power; and two, by speaking to it continually, with great clarity, as to the joys and rewards that await it in the unfamiliar territory ahead.

    Thank you for this inspirational blog.

  3. Wowzas Maggie! This was good.

    I have been re-negotiating with my Rider for months now.

    we’re making progress, but it’s slow.


  4. I loved this: “Our emotions are like the elephant, and our rational brain is like the rider. If we want to tame our emotions, we cannot beat them up first. We have to accept them, and only then can we begin to convince them to do what we want.” I am very often annoyed with my elephant. Ha. I want to learn to accept fluctuations in mood and feelings better. I guess it’s representative of my control freak-ness 🙂

    1. @Kim: Yes! I know. I get so annoyed and I beat him up. No wonder he doesn’t trust me. But I think I’m learning to be nicer. I liked T. Lavon Lawrence’s comment above about inspiring the elephant.

  5. Unfortunately, we as human beings tend to get stuck on the negative and rarely able to see the positive in life. Of course, we try our hardest but sometimes it’s just not working out. The elephant and the rider is an excellent metaphor.

  6. hey maggie,

    great maggie, just great! i love the elephant/rider metaphor. the book that uses this (The Happiness Hypothesis) is in my queue. sometimes i feel like my metaphor should be a panther riding a dolphin. sneaky rational brain, smart emotions (but the panther is too stuck up to listen to the dolphin!) other days like a mouse riding a cat…the emotions are raging and trying to throw the mouse off the back.

    great post maggie. lookinng forward to the next.

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