Several years ago I discovered a metaphor that has helped me simplify the explanation of how our brain works. It’s a metaphor I read in psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s 2006 book “The Happiness Hypothesis; Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom”.
This is the elephant-rider metaphor: The mind can be understood visualizing a man riding an elephant. The rider is our rational side of the brain and the elephant is our emotional side of the brain. Our rational part of the brain (the rider) is supposed to be in control of the emotional part of the brain (the elephant).
We all think our behavior depends on the rider rationally controlling the reins and directing the elephant at all times. But the truth is the elephant is much stronger, which means that our behavior is more automatic and unconscious than we think. We are more emotional than rational because of the very old survival mechanism that live in the elephant to this day. Strong survival impulse reactions.
The power of this metaphor has to do with our conscious and non-conscious brain functions and the delusion that we rationally control our actions.
There are two systems running our minds: System 1, the intuitive fast-thinking and mostly automatic one; and System 2, the reasoning slow-thinking and mostly effortful conscious one. One brain, two systems of mental processing. This has been brilliantly documented by Daniel Kahneman in «Thinking, Fast and Slow».
These systems are correlated to different parts of the brain: fast thinking to the older part of the brain (ruled by your amygdala) and slow thinking to the newest part of our brain (the gray matter) in our pre-frontal cortex, where the most sophisticated reasoning, analyzing and objective calculations take place.
The elephant is the emotional brain, the thinking-fast, jumping-to-conclusions brain. It’s the older part of our brain, where the amygdala runs fear-induced survival features.
The rider is the rational brain, the thinking-slow manager of our executive functions. It’s in the pre-frontal cortex, the evolved part of the brain, where rational processing occurs.
Awakening the rider refers to your capacity to improve the use of your rational brain and conscious mind to manage yourself better. To direct your attention better. To make better and more useful interpretations of what happens in your world.