You Have Two Brains, and They’re Really Bad at Talking to Each Other
Let’s pretend your mind is a car. Let’s call it the “Consciousness Car.” Your Consciousness Car is driving along the road of life, and there are intersections, on-ramps, and off-ramps. These roads and intersections represent the decisions you must make as you drive, and they will determine your destination. Now, there are two travelers in your Consciousness Car: a Thinking Brain and a Feeling Brain. The Thinking Brain represents your conscious thoughts, your ability to make calculations, and your ability to reason through various options and express ideas through language. Your Feeling Brain represents your emotions, impulses, intuition, and instincts. While your Thinking Brain is calculating payment schedules on your credit card statement, your Feeling Brain wants to sell everything and run away to Tahiti. Each of your two brains has its strengths and weaknesses. The Thinking Brain is conscientious, accurate, and impartial. It is methodical and rational, but it is also slow. It requires a lot of effort and energy, and like a muscle, it must be built up over time and can become fatigued if overexerted. The Feeling Brain, however, arrives at its conclusions quickly and effortlessly. The problem is that it is often inaccurate and irrational. The Feeling Brain is also a bit of a drama queen and has a bad habit of overreacting. When we think of ourselves and our decision making, we generally assume that the Thinking Brain is driving our Consciousness Car and the Feeling Brain is sitting in the passenger seat shouting out where it wants to go. We’re driving along, accomplishing our goals and figuring out how to get home, when that damn Feeling Brain sees something shiny or sexy or fun-looking and yanks the steering wheel in another direction, thus causing us to careen into oncoming traffic, harming other people’s Consciousness Cars as well as our own. This is the Classic Assumption, the belief that our reason is ultimately in control of our life and that we must train our emotions to sit the fuck down and shut up while the adult is driving. We then applaud this kidnapping and abuse of our emotions by congratulating ourselves on our self-control. But our Consciousness Car doesn’t work that way. When his tumor was removed, Elliot’s Feeling Brain got thrown out of his moving mental vehicle, and nothing got better for him. In fact, his Consciousness Car stalled out. Lobotomy patients had their Feeling Brains tied up and thrown in the car’s trunk, and that merely caused them to become sedated and lazy, unable to get out of bed or even dress themselves much of the time. Meanwhile, Tom Waits was pretty much all Feeling Brain all the time, and he got paid copious amounts of money to be drunk on television talk shows. So, there’s that. Here’s the truth: the Feeling Brain is driving our Consciousness Car. And I don’t care how scientific you think you are or how many letters you have after your name, you’re one of us, bucko. You’re a crazy Feeling Brain–piloted meat robot just like the rest of us. Keep your bodily fluids to yourself, please. The Feeling Brain drives our Consciousness Car because, ultimately, we are moved to action only by emotion. That’s because action is emotion. 16 Emotion is the biological hydraulic system that pushes our bodies into movement. Fear is not this magical thing your brain invents. No, it happens in our bodies. It’s the tightening of your stomach, the tensing of your muscles, the release of adrenaline, the overwhelming desire for space and emptiness around your body. While the Thinking Brain exists solely within the synaptic arrangements inside your skull, the Feeling Brain is the wisdom and stupidity of the entire body. Anger pushes your body to move. Anxiety pulls it into retreat. Joy lights up the facial muscles, while sadness attempts to shade your existence from view. Emotion inspires action, and action inspires emotion. The two are inseparable. This leads to the simplest and most obvious answer to the timeless question, why don’t we do things we know we should do? Because we don’t feel like it. Every problem of self-control is not a problem of information or discipline or reason but, rather, of emotion. Self-control is an emotional problem; laziness is an emotional problem; procrastination is an emotional problem; underachievement is an emotional problem; impulsiveness is an emotional problem. This sucks. Because emotional problems are much harder to deal with than logical ones. There are equations to help you calculate the monthly payments on your car loan. There are no equations to help you end a bad relationship. And as you’ve probably figured out by now, intellectually understanding how to change your behavior doesn’t change your behavior. (Trust me, I’ve read like twelve books on nutrition and am still chomping on a burrito as I write this.) We know we should stop smoking cigarettes or stop eating sugar or stop talking shit about our friends behind their backs, but we still do it. And it’s not because we don’t know better; it’s because we don’t feel better. Emotional problems are irrational, meaning they cannot be reasoned with. And this brings us to even worse news: emotional problems can only have emotional solutions. It’s all up to the Feeling Brain. And if you’ve seen how most people’s Feeling Brains drive, that’s pretty fucking scary. Meanwhile, while all this is going on, the Thinking Brain is sitting in the passenger seat imagining itself to be totally in control of the situation. If the Feeling Brain is our driver, then the Thinking Brain is the navigator. It has stacks of maps to reality that it has drawn and accumulated throughout life. It knows how to double back and find alternate routes to the same destination. It knows where the bad turns are and where to find the shortcuts. It correctly sees itself as the intelligent, rational brain, and it believes that this somehow privileges it to be in control of the Consciousness Car. But, alas, it doesn’t. As Daniel Kahneman once put it, the Thinking Brain is “the supporting character who imagines herself to be the hero.” Even if sometimes they can’t stand each other, our two brains need each other. The Feeling Brain generates the emotions that cause us to move into action, and the Thinking Brain suggests where to direct that action. The keyword here is suggests. While the Thinking Brain is not able to control the Feeling Brain, it is able to influence it, sometimes to a great degree. The Thinking Brain can convince the Feeling Brain to pursue a new road to a better future, to pull a U-turn when it has made a mistake, or to consider new routes or territories once ignored. But the Feeling Brain is stubborn, and if it wants to go in one direction, it will drive that way no matter how many facts or data the Thinking Brain provides. Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt compares the two brains to an elephant and its rider: the rider can gently steer and pull the elephant in a particular direction, but ultimately the elephant is going to go where it wants to go.