Taming your elephant: the three brains

 We all have been in situations where we have made decisions as a reaction to an internal strong emotion that has led to an immediate regret and this is known as an emotional hijack. Believe it or not, this is natural behaviour as our brain is continuously trying to protect us and will try to warn us should any event be considered a threat. This was indeed very useful thousands of years ago when we would find daily dangerous situations, but nowadays those situations have become a rare occurrence. However, this does not mean that our brain has lost this ability, so, sometimes we overreact to situations that can cause more harm than good to our lives. But there is good news about this! We can learn how to use it to our benefit, have you heard about the “taming your elephant metaphor”?

Let’s introduce first a bit of basic brain physiology and then move to the metaphor

The three brains 

The oldest part of our brain is called the reptilian brain and it is positioned right above our spine. It’s responsible for basic survival activities such as breathing, heart beating or body temperature. Through evolution, we developed what professionals call the limbic brain, also known as the emotional brain. The limbic brain is am unconscious part and it is in charge of storing our beliefs, and all our emotions. Later on, we developed a third area of our brain, the neo-cortex, also known as the “thinking brain”. The neo-cortex is a conscious part and helps us to generate our thoughts. For example, it is responsible for the development of our languages and our ability to imagine. In essence, humans owe the actual technological advancements to that part of the brain.  

What is the difference between them?

An important difference between the emotional and the thinking brain is that the emotional brain is much more active. Some studies estimate that our limbic system engages up to six million cells, a huge number in comparison to our logical brain that engages only around a hundred. Another significant aspect is that our brain evolved growing outwards, this means from the inside to the outside. Therefore, the number of connections from the emotional to the thinking brain is much more than in the opposite direction.

As you can imagine, the result is that our emotions hold a lot more power than our rational thinking, thus, bringing the emotional brain the option to control us in stressful situations.

The elephant and rider metaphor

To better visualize this concept, let’s look at the following analogy. We can think of the emotional brain as an elephant and of the thinking brain as the elephant’s rider. Whilst the rider can use sophisticated strategies and methods to tame and direct the elephant’s path, undoubtedly, the elephant is a lot stronger and can take over at any time. Therefore, the rider needs to be soft, respectful and kind to the elephant so the animal follows the path that the rider is suggesting. And here comes an important point, the consequences of not doing so could be chaotic. Such as, the rider never reaching the destination and the elephant never knowing where to go.   

And here comes more, the elephant has its own language to communicate, such as sounds, body language, breathing, etc. And the rider can only understand a limited number of them. Meaning that the communication between our emotional and thinking brains works through feelings, physical symptoms and intuition, of which only a few can be caught by the thinking brain.

Therefore, when it comes to making decisions in our lives we need to exercise the act of listening to our inner selves. Our intuition and body symptoms are also clues that can help us to take the right path according to our true values.

In summary

In short, our emotional brain is a powerful system and our weaker logical brain needs certain methodologies to compensate for that difference. The avid rider will be able to shift the elephant’s attention to more helpful places when unwanted events show up. This is mastered by spending time listening and reflecting on what is happening to us. In this way, when it comes to stressful situations, we will better understand how to manage the situation.

Self-listening is a way in which we can recognise signals from our emotions to later manage them. Or in words of Marcus Aurelius: 

Marcus Aurelius

Look well into thyself; there is a source of strength which will always spring up if thou wilt always look 

Marcus Aurelius
  1. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Daniel Goleman.
  2. Emotional Intelligence Coaching: Improving Performance for Leaders, Coaches and the Individual. Steve Neale, Lisa Spencer-Arnell , Liz Wilson.
  3. A brief history of the brain. David Robson.
  4. Meditations. Marcus Aurelius

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