Our two minds
Thirty years of neuropsychological research has revealed that the fully rational mind is mostly an illusion. Our brain has two minds: (1) a word-driven conscious mind that we know, because we think and speak with it, (2) and an emotion-driven unconscious mind that we don’t know because it operates wordlessly. Our two minds are located in two different parts of the brain and must work together to create our everyday reality.
Rather than continuing to name our minds as unconscious and conscious, I’m going to use Jonathan Haidt’s visual metaphor – the Elephant and the Rider - to describe them. Why? Because the picture of a five-ton working elephant (the unconscious/emotional mind) being directed by the 110-pound rider with a pointy stick (the conscious/rational mind) instantly portrays the differences in their size and power and exemplifies the core of their working relationship – deeply learned habits. Moreover, these habits, once revealed, show the limits of rationality. The Rider evolved to serve the Elephant, not the other way around.
Our Rider mind is seated in the frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex – right behind the forehead. Called the pre-frontal cortex – this area houses the brain's speech, reflective thought, control functions, and our sense of self. Its ability to create “if this - then this” possibilities, before deciding how to act, makes us unique in the creature world. And it allows us to believe that the Rider mind stands alone in control of our thought processes, yet this can't be so for most of our thinking.
The Rider processes information very slowly - about 40 bits of information per second. It can only work well when there’s enough time, not too much data and we choose to spend the bodily energy required for deliberate thought. Why? During deliberate thought, the Rider burns more glucose than any other organ in the body. That’s why we feel tired after doing our taxes. Taking the time and expending the energy required for deliberate thought in everyday interactions would make us look like we’re part of the zombie apocalypse. Halting and slow.
Normal thought and speech must appear to be fluent and responsive. To serve its two purposes, the Rider’s needs to know “what’s going on, what’s going to happen next and how we’re being treated” in the next moment, so we can respond with flow – as competent speakers. This requires the speed and the intervention of our Elephant mind.
Daniel Kahneman suggests this as he introduces the two minds in Thinking Fast and Slow. When we’re asked what we’re thinking we always have an answer because we assume that our momentary conscious thought is built on a previous conscious thought. Not so.