Our lives are run by our brain – a huge information processor that sends one quadrillion instructions per second throughout a network of brain cells or neurons that are connected to each other. These connections – called synapses – are created in order to process 11,000,000 bits of incoming information per second. Our brain creates somewhere around 1,000 trillion synapses and each thing we know is embodied in a separate network of these neural connections.
We naturally assume that all this structure represents our conscious mind – thinking and speech – that our brain is our conscious mind. Philosophers have relied on this rational “single minded” view to explain and criticize human behavior for over 2000 years. Rationality became a cultural ideal. As such, it is the foundation of our basic model of managerial decision-making and communication. As managers, our decisions are supposed to be grounded in deliberate choices and thoughtfully communicated.
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 more evocative 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 illusory aspects of rationality because 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. It’s ability to create “if this – then this” possibilities before deciding how to act makes us unique in the creature world. It also gives us the potential to control the Elephant mind, which we don’t do often because we don’t know what we actually know and how we know it.
We’re socialized to believe that Rider mind stands alone in control of our thought processes. Daniel Kahheman reminds us of this as he introduces the two minds. When we’re asked what we’re thinking we always have an answer because we assume that our conscious thought of the moment is built on a previous conscious thought. But as he says, what we believe is not the typical way the mind actually works:
Most impressions and thoughts arise in your conscious experience without your knowing how they got there. You cannot trace how you came to the belief that there is a lamp on the desk in front of you, or how you detected a hint of irritation in your spouse’s voice on the telephone, or how you managed to avoid a threat on the road before you became consciously aware of it. The mental work that produces impressions, intuitions, and many decisions goes on in silence in our mind.
They are the product of the Elephant mind. It knows words but can’t use them to communicate – hence the “silence.” It supplies our conscious thoughts most of the time because thinking is hard and our Rider is lazy. Simply focusing the Rider on a single problem takes real bodily energy. Persistent, deliberate thought consumes even more. Since, our brain has evolved to conserve mental energy and to avoid leaving us “lost in thought” in everyday situations, it turns over our moment-to-moment thinking and decision-making to the Elephant’s entirely different approach to making decisions, without us consciously noticing.
I’ll talk about The Elephant’s functions and entirely different approach to making decisions in my next posting.
 Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Penguin Group, p. 4.
 Kahneman, D. op. cit. Chap. 3.