A deep dive into the core of our nature
“Ain’t get too drunk, you’re going to have a meeting this morning!”
“Stop Netflixing too much, ain’t you have something more productive to do?”,
“Cut your sugar, ain’t you want that squares upon your abs?”
For long, we know the notion about keeping things in moderation, that anything too much is not good. But for long also we knew, after all, we would pick the “wrong” yet intuitive path — even when we do realize the regrets which might come afterward.
Type for any personal development tips you want (How to get productive, fight laziness, stay in shape, build a happy life, etc.). It is very likely you’d find the most practical, provable tips about it.
But, in today’s world, it’s not the practical insights that we lack, but the motives to do such practicality.
For long, our species has been the leading characters of the survival game. Thanks to the development of certain mental tools — one of which is our ability to inhibit impulsive desires, to put some planning and rational thinking within our decision making.
This ability — embedded mostly in a newly developed part of our brain, namely the frontal cortex — has enabled us to achieve longer-term goals compared to our primates relatives (Such as applying for college and build businesses, which our friendly apes wouldn’t definitely do).
But why, after those cognitive improvements, we’re still often enslaved by our lower “animal” motives, which forces us to follow unhealthy desires despite knowing what goals worth striving for.
This article is about the phenomenon behind the never-ending battles between our emotional and rational self and how we might deal with it.
Just like the importance of reading the user manuals before using any product, the human brain is no different.
Only by understanding our nature in the right manner can we start to utilize our capacity into its maximum potentials.
The divided mind
Your mind is like an elephant with a rider. The rider is smart and rational. He knows where to go, which paths to take, and how to deal with traps.
But in order to move, he depends on the elephant. And just like an animal can be, the elephant is impulsive and irrational. It responds with intuitions, which are sometimes useful, but sometimes leads to problems.
When someone is compulsively going for a movie marathon despite working for those critical deadlines tomorrow morning, the compulsion itself represents the elephant. In contrast, the rider is the one who tells him to work his as off.
As I described before, the elephant is irrational.
Robert Greene illustrated it precisely in one of his books, The Laws of Human Nature, that in general, the elephant moves toward things it likes and stays away from something it dislikes. It desires pleasure and avoids any sort of pain as possible.
Sounds terrible, huh? Not actually. Being irrational can be useful on many occasions.
Consider you’re entering a department store trying to pick some casual pairs.
It would be so inefficient to pick one from hundreds of different collections by rationally weighing all the options possible.
Your intuition (elephant) will first guide you toward salient options (such as liking those red jackets at the corner), eliminating many others. Only after that your rider would step in, rationally weighing the cost with your account balances. The same occurs whenever you’re picking up movies to watch, music to listen, even someone to hang out with.
On trivial occasions, like buying the right clothes, your elephant and rider can collaborate quite well and effectively. But take the other example, such as dating.
As corny as it sounds, the notion “Falling in love” might be the best way to describe the nature of this phenomenon.
When you’re in love, the rider knows you should work productively and think rationally on every decision you’re about to make. Yet, it is not likely for you to do so.
In the name of “love” (though sometimes you’ll deny it), you start making rationalizations only to justify your will. And now, you might have this tickling sense of shame by reflecting how naive you were back then.
In cases of emotionally aroused conditions, whether in forms of dating, personal conflict, depression, or exhilaration. The rider and elephant tend to move in such opposing ways.
Sometimes the rider actually knows what’s right to do. Yet, you can’t do it because the elephant is soaring inside, waiting for you to fulfill its desires.
And this is the crucial point:
The rider serves more as an advisor rather than a king. So, whenever the elephant has firmly decided where to move (Like: “I love her”, “One more doughnut please”, “F*ck body goals!”), the rider has an even weaker contribution on your behavior.
And believe it or not, in many cases, the rider has no choice rather than to follow and justify the elephant’s act.
In sum, the rider represents your conscious mind; it comprises reasoning, planning, and logical thinking; it tends to think on a longer time frame. The elephant represents your subconscious mind; it consists of intuition and emotion; it cares about fulfilling its desires “here and now”.
Despite regarded as short-minded and impulsive, the elephant is not your enemy. On the other hand, it also serves as the basis of your morality, compassion, and virtue, which can lead you into a satisfying life.
Think of those joyous moments when you were intuitively sharing kindness with a friend, or vehemently opposing racism and injustice (Like what happened recently with George Floyd’s case). Those are elephants on the action.
The rider and elephant both have their unique strength. When working together, they enable the uniqueness and brilliance of human beings.
Evolution tells the reason
Maybe you’d ask: If the rider is so smart and rational, why didn’t evolution choose it to rule over the “dumb”, impulsive elephant? Maybe then we could all be like Plato, Socrates, or the other super-rational philosophers.
Imagine being able to study or work 24/7 without the urge to scroll through your Insta or Facebook feeds mindlessly. Or, quickly cut off a toxic relationship as soon as you know it.
It turns out that the rider is not as perfect as you’d think. It has tendencies to overthink. The elephant, on the other side, can work way faster and efficiently.
Let me give you a glimpse of illustration:
You’re in a car, driving to your parent’s house for dinner. Your friend is calling, gabbing about this new Spanish show on Netflix.
You’re laughing enthusiastically when abruptly, the car in front of you is taking a sudden brake.
ZAPPPP… Without you even realized, your foot has just stepped on that brake pedal. So intuitively, just like it has the mind of its own.
And thank God you had just saved from a traumatic injury, by the hand of your “dumb” and impulsive Elephant (Now it looks a lot smarter, isn’t it?).
What if you choose the rider to take charge of that moment? Maybe instead of taking action, he would say:
“Hmm, what has just happened to the car ahead? Why did it take a sudden brake? Does the driver get high? What an irresponsible act!”
And you wouldn’t even notice ever thinking so since you were already half-conscious on the way to the hospital.
Since the first clumps of neurons emerged — forming the first brain — about 500 million years ago, it is designated primarily to serve its primary purpose: promoting survival.
The brain has become an adaptation tool. It processes bits of information, eliciting appropriate responses quickly to threats and opportunities from the surrounding environment.
The triune brain theory, developed by American neuroscientist — Paul D. Maclean — suggests that the brain has been growing progressively throughout the evolutionary process. From its lowest level (Reptilian brain) to a higher level (In mammals, named as the “Limbic Brain”), and into its peak (In modern humans, called the “Neocortex”).
This model — while regarded as an oversimplification in the scientific community — was agreed to be crucial on the understanding of how the brain works, primarily the rider-elephant phenomenon.
A reptile whose sense danger in the environment responds instinctually in a split second to flight from the area. There’s no separation between impulse and action.
Mammals — like dogs or rats — have developed something more, which is emotions. This enables them to become more alert to possible dangers and rewards; also to communicate more through bodily signals (think of the growling dog who shows its anger).
These instinctual and emotional drives are so important to promote the continuity of the species itself.
Foods provide the energy to move and grow; therefore, it became pleasurable whenever you eat food. This pleasure reinforces animals to seek for more foods later on. Sex promotes the continuity of the genes; thus, it triggers a pleasurable feeling. Eaten by a predator would be devastating for the species; therefore, fear was developed to forces either fight or flight responses.
Only about 40.000–2 million years ago, the brain developed into something way more sophisticated. Imprinted inside modern human minds, the ability to form language, reasoning, and conscious planning. Like a new software, rider version 1.0 — as Haidt points out in his book The Happiness Hypothesis.
The rider enables us to excel at the game of survival, but as you’ve noticed, it is also the source of an eternal battle between emotion and rationality — as we had discussed before.
So, as our rider was just being born (Evolutionary speaking), the elephant had been endured millions of years of development through adaptation and natural selection. No doubt that it would be more robust in controlling our behaviors.
Understanding your elephant
I’ve already stated in the beginning that to utilize the human-machinery on its maximum potentials, first, we need to understand its nature.
This section is about understanding your elephant deeper.
It would answer why do certain people have a calmer and optimistic elephant, while in some, it looks bad-tempered and more pessimistic.
To prevent too much iteration. Let me call Mr. Elephant in a different name this time, referring to his scientific name, which is: “Subconscious mind.”
Have you ever heard the notion which says that the subconscious mind comprises 95% of your behavior?
Well, that number represents a lot of truth.
Let’s get back into you driving a car.
The only reason you can talk to your friend while not crashing over the fence is only because that, the act of driving itself is mostly processed within your subconscious mind.
Hit the gas when the light turns green, slow down whenever you see a car with a turn signal. The more you repeat the process, the more it feels like an intuition rather than something you have to do with an intense focus.
Similar to that, emotion is also an intuitive process; It emerges from a subconscious level.
If you’re a fan of The Avengers, like me, you’d remember that feeling of disappointment when Thor was failed to stop Thanos from snapping his fingers — causing half of the world’s population to disappear.
Were you consciously deciding how you’d feel at the moment? (“Ok, because I’m a pro-life person, I would get disappointed with this”). Nope right?
It happens automatically in such an intuitive fashion, below the level of your consciousness.
Drive your car frequently, and the process would run more intuitively. The same happens with emotions:
The more you get emotionally triggered by certain conditions (ex: shamefully scolded by your boss, obsessively waiting for those likes to appear on your Insta-post), the more likely that emotional response would get imprinted within your personality.
We can call this whole process: subconscious programming.
The process of subconscious programming has been running since you were born, strongly occurred in your childhood (0–7 years, referring to Bruce H. Lipton, Ph.D., author of “The Biology of Belief”) and reach its perfection in early adulthood.
This holds as a reason why childhood trauma can be so devastating to one’s mental health, also why it’s so hard to change one’s anxious or pessimistic tendencies later in life.
But, hang on, “hard” doesn’t equal “can’t” right? This brings us to the next section.
Training your elephant
After understanding about the elephant and the rider, you must be thinking, “What’s the significance it might give to my life anyway?”, “How can it be useful in my daily strivings?”
Well, one of the essential benefits of adapting an analogy is that it gives you a shortcut to understanding complex mechanisms.
Now, you don’t necessarily need a psychology degree anytime you want to analyze your behavior. Otherwise, you might think of it this way:
Your mind is a rider riding an elephant, heading towards those wellsprings in the savanna (“wellsprings” symbolized the desired behavior).
The rider can control the elephant quite effectively on its neutral state, but, would find it very difficult whenever the elephant get aroused in many ways. Such as when it likes the opposite-sex elephant (romance), fearfully evading a threatful snake (anxiety), or passionately chasing a clump of fake bananas (desire).
If the elephant holds more control over directing our behavior, then changing the elephant would serve as the key to producing desirable outcomes.
There’re two conditions that you should notice whenever you want to approach your elephant:
1. When the elephant on its aroused state
Whenever the elephant gets aroused — whether in forms of rage, desperation, lust, or fear — don’t use the rider to fight it directly.
Opposing the elephant’s will in such conditions is like trying to push or lift the elephant when it refused to move. Described in one word, it is: useless.
We must have those experiences when we pushed so hard to think positively in a depressing moment. In most cases, it won’t work. Actually, there’s even a term in regards to this phenomenon; it is “Toxic Positivity.”
To emphasize again: The elephant is not your enemy; the elephant is YOU. Fighting yourself would only build more chaos and exhaustion. The best approach instead is first to observe and understand your elephant in a non-judgemental way.
Mindfulness practice is one way to do this. There has been a lot of research showing the benefits of mindfulness for people with anxiety, depression, even those with only daily stress.
If you think this practice might troubles you with such procedural methods, consider how simple it actually is: Whenever you feel emotionally aroused (ultimately when it is negative), hold yourself from reacting directly; just sit and observe that emotional sensation from your body.
A good rider is an excellent trainer. An excellent trainer first should understand the characteristic of his trainee.
When you had understood the elephant, then you can start persuading it. Don’t do it with pure logic and reason; instead, wrap it with emotion. Make the elephant get interested in doing the good things.
Example: if you want to tackle those junk-food craving while on a diet, instead of making reasons why you shouldn’t eat, try to recall those people or videos which triggered you to start in the first place (Remember: Target the elephant).
2. When the elephant on its neutral state
Training the elephant on its calmer state is easier, but that’s also why it became easily overlooked.
Every time we think about a change, we imagine that it would come in forms of enlightenment that suddenly creates massive changes in our life. But the truth is, most changes happen more like a marathon than a sprint.
You’ve learned that the elephant characteristics is created through habituation. The same happens with decision making.
Take one example:
Exercising is far from hard to do; what’s hard is starting the exercise itself.
To put up your shoes and step outside is a pain in the ass. But once you had done it repeatedly, it would be so much easier to overcome. The elephant had learned to be less reluctant, and even it would get disappointed when you suddenly stop the habit.
The key is to repeat the decision over and over until it becomes more automatic. And to make it solid, you need to put a little sacrifice at the beginning.
My mom has a saying: “Once rice had turned into a porridge, you can’t make it back into rice.”
Same with us, there might be some characteristics, emotional response, or subconscious programs within our elephant that we hope were not imprinted into ourselves in the first place.
But what my mom didn’t mention is that the “porridge” itself can get tastier.
Only if you humble enough to accept the flaws and learn which are the best spices and toppings to add.
In other words, we can use our rider to train our elephant into a better one.
One that fueled with optimism and wisdom, rather than pessimism and despair.