The dual mind model refers to the three existing different brain structures, each with its own specialization. The first structure from the point of view of evolution is the reptilian brain, also called small brain or cerebellum, it maintains the basic functions of the organism: the ability to breathe, heartbeat, maintaining balance, etc. This structure is what we have in common with both reptiles and mammals. In other words, the role of the reptilian brain is to keep us alive and safe.
The second structure is represented by the limbic system, a structure we share with mammals. The limbic system gives us a much wider emotional spectrum. The main advantage that the limbic system has brought us is the ability to create attachment bonds, emotional bonds with others.
The third brain structure is the neocortex, it differentiated us humans from reptiles and mammals. The neocortex is responsible for all cognitive functions such as: empathy, imagination, decision-making, morality, self-awareness, the ability to abstract thoughts and concepts that we cannot see. A profound and most important function for us humans is speech. No other species has this ability to communicate as complex as we do. Specifically, most of the important tasks we have to do throughout the day rely on the neocortex. It is also the neocortex that helps us inhibit our emotional starts, impulses. For example, when our boss annoys us, the part of the brain that helps us not tell him exactly what we think about him is the neocortex, and the part that gives us the impulse to tell him what we really think is a mix between the reptilian brain and the limbic.
Thus, we can observe the dual pattern of our mind, which is divided between rational and emotional. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Happiness Hypothesis, compared the first two brain structures (the reptilian brain and the limbic system) to the Elephant, and the neocortex was compared to the Horseman.
The Horseman represents the rational system and has the ability to think long term, plan, think beyond the moment and make more important decisions. It is what gives us the power to learn and analogize from past experiences rather than just responding to particular situations.
This rational side is also known as the reflective or conscious system. It is the part of us that deliberates, analyzes and looks into the future. Ultimately, the horseman is about logic and reason.
The power of generalization is vital to human survival. We wouldn’t be able to function in society, for example, if we didn’t have the ability to recognize the general shape of a human face, and instead would have to examine the face of every person we met before determining that it was someone else the person. Generalization allows us to aggregate inputs and distill them down to general patterns that inform our reactions to stimuli.
Jonathan Haidt used to say that our rational side is the rider. The rider analyzes to be able to decide. If we want to make lasting and meaningful change, we need to get the Elephant and the Rider to walk happily together on the same road.
Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and appears to be the leader. Although the Rider holds the reins and seems to lead the Elephant, if they disagree about the direction to go, there is a conflict between them, the six-ton Elephant can always defeat the Rider, and the Rider, although he may not know this, it cannot force the Elephant to go anywhere, it is completely out of date. Making progress toward a goal, whether noble or crass, requires the energy and drive of the Elephant.
A good Rider can lead an Elephant to the bright spots because, as Chip and Dan Heath explain, what appears to be resistance is usually just a lack of clarity. Our rational side can advise and guide our emotional core, but in a contest of wills, emotion will trump reason, almost always.
One of the most effective ways to increase our happiness is to bring reason and emotion into better harmony, using the power of reason to guide (but not control) our emotions toward healthier and more fulfilling desires.
Chronologically, the Elephant existed before the appearance of the Rider. Basic body functions and instincts are all part of the Elephant and we share them with other mammals.
The elephant is that part of the mind that includes all the automatic processes that can take place at the same time and without effort. It is the one that rapidly and unconsciously generates all the impressions and sensations that are the basis of the opinions and emotions that we (the conscious self) recognize, name, and sometimes verbalize.
It is more difficult to locate in the brain because it covers a much wider range of mechanisms. It notices that one object is further away from another, it suddenly directs attention in the direction of a noise, it drives the car when the road is known or deserted, it helps us to avoid an imminent danger.
Our emotional side is represented by the Elephant, as Jonathan Hadit said. The Rider can take the lead by controlling the Elephant only in a few specific situations, but even then, if the Elephant wants something very badly then the Rider becomes irrelevant.
When the impulse is strong enough, the Rider does not even realize what has happened because it is already too late. It’s those situations where we wake up with a lit cigarette, feel guilty for eating that calorie-filled cookie or having sex with that hot guy even though we know he won’t call us the next day.
The conscious system represented by the Horseman has a very limited capacity, while the automatic system represented by the Elephant can do 10 things at the same time without making any effort. The conscious system can only focus on one thing for a short period of time because this requires a lot of energy. When the Horseman is tired, stressed, in a hurry, undernourished or with too much on his mind, he gives in. The Elephant, on the other hand, is much more resilient and efficient, it requires no effort and will take over as soon as the Rider cannot.
This situation where the Elephant takes over is inevitable and only a matter of time before it happens, but there is also good news, we can prepare for this situation by controlling the environment or by rewiring our perceptions of danger, threat and related reactivity. For example, if we are on a diet and we know that we are not allowed to eat high-calorie foods, the best thing we can do is not to have these foods in the house, because we will have the urge to eat them.
In relation to the Horseman, the Elephant is rigid, stubborn, solves simple but important problems, is sensitive to threats and focuses on the present, while the Horseman is flexible, solves complex problems, is open to new things, is focused on everything that is positive, has the ability to inhibit the emotional starts caused by the Elephant and is focused on the future. The dynamic between the two systems of our mind explains how we perceive the world, how we make decisions and how emotions are formed. Although the Horseman and the Elephant represent two such different structures, they operate on the basis of a successful partnership and it is critical to get self-awareness on ones triggers, reactions, thoughts, feelings and reframe those as necessary.
Chip și Dan Heath, Switch: How to change things when change is hard, Publishing house: Random House Business, 2011.
Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, Publishing house: Humanitas, Bucharest, 2020.
Marco Magrini, The Brain – usage manual, Publishing house: Herald, Bucharest, 2021.
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