The Struggle Between the “Heart” and the “Brain” — Understanding Our Two Minds
We have two minds—two fundamentally different modes of comprehension, or ways of knowing: an emotional mind and a rational mind.
RATIONAL MIND (a mind that thinks): Our rational mind is thoughtful, able to ponder and reflect. Based on intellect, analysis, and logic. The rational mind establishes connections between causes and effects. The rational mind requires some time to first register and then respond to “what is going on.”
EMOTIONAL MIND (a mind that feels): We owe our empathic understanding to our emotional mind. This is the ability to ‘read between the lines’ or to figure out that something is wrong, in spite of what the other person is saying. The emotional mind relies on first impressions and does not engage in detailed analysis. The emotional mind is intuitive, impulsive (quicker than the rational mind and able to make split-second decisions or lead to rapid-fire reactions, and thus often referred to as a “radar for danger”), and sometimes illogical. The emotional mind uses associative logic and responds to symbols, metaphors, parables, and stories. Psychologists have described the logic of the emotional mind as the logic of art, poetry, religion, dream, and myth. It is childlike, often bypasses the limits of time and ignores causality, typically discarding any evidence that could point to the contrary. The emotional mind allows possibilities which the rational mind would discard as highly improbable. A shrinking feature of the emotional mind is that it makes associations—every time a person or an event resembles another situation from the past, it triggers an emotional reaction equivalent to the one from the past.
The dichotomy between these two minds is commonly described as the conflict we experience between the “heart” and the “head,” between emotion and reason. Based on the intensity of an emotion or a feeling, one of the two minds dominates over our convictions, decisions, and behavior. The stronger the emotion, the more dominant the emotional mind.
Yet both the minds are important, and most of the time they take into consideration the inputs of their counterparts and operate in harmony and coordination — “emotions feeding into and informing the operations of the rational mind, and the rational mind refining and sometimes vetoing the inputs of the emotions.”
This explains the existence of a second kind of emotional reaction which is slower than the typical, quick-response emotional reaction. In this case, our thoughts precede the formation of the emotion. Examples include the development of more complex emotions, such as embarrassment.
The reason we are so often governed by our emotional mind rather than by our rational mind is evolutionary.
The brainstem (the primitive brain) which surrounds the top of the spinal cord regulates basic life functions (such as breathing and metabolism) and controls stereotyped reactions and movements. It is a set of preprogrammed regulators that keep the body running and reacting in a way that ensures survival.
The emotional centers emerged from the brainstem, more precisely from the olfactory lobe (the cells that analyze smell). They formed the limbic system. Over time, the limbic system evolved to include learning and memory. Millions of years later, evolution led to the formation of the neocortex (the thinking brain), capable of strategy and long-term planning. Thus, there was an emotional brain millions of years before the rational brain. Yet the thinking brain added nuance to the emotional life, such as a development of a mother-child bond and motherly affection (absent in species which have no neocortex).
With the evolutionary increase in the neocortex mass, there is a geometric progression in the number and complexity of neural connections in the brain. This has led to the development of a vast range of emotional responses.
Yet in a state of an emotional emergency, the neocortex does not govern — it defers to the limbic system. Goleman explains, “As the root from which the newer brain grew, the emotional areas are intertwined via myriad connecting circuits to all parts of the neocortex. This gives the emotional centers immense power to influence the functioning of the rest of the brain—including its centers for thought.”
Based on the book “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ” by Daniel Goleman, Bantam Books. 1995.