Productivity Self Improvement Well-Being

Your Emotional Brain is Smarter Than Your Brain Thinks

by Thomas Oppong & me


Emotion is not the enemy of reason

The need to decide is never-ending. You make decisions even when you unconsciously think you are choosing not to decide.

And we don’t always choose the most rational option.

Everyone processes information with both the rational and emotional parts of the brain. Here is an example that sounds familiar.

Your rational brain knows that certain habits like smoking, and skipping even minimal exercise are bad for your health, the emotional part of your brain sometimes overcome this knowledge, justifies and even rationalise these bad behaviours, and convince you to keep doing everything wrong for your health.

The timeless and obvious question is: why don’t we do things we know we should do?

Welcome to the divided brain.

There is a lot of information on the power struggle between the emotional and rational part of the brain.

In Kahneman’s book, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, they are described as two separate systems of thinking; first, the emotional and intuitive process, and then the slower and more effortful process of rational logic.

These two sections of the brain are always competing and typically call upon either section depending on a lot of factors.

Certain situations may require more activity in the rational part of your brain, while others will rely on the emotional section to make a choice.

Whether your emotional brain operates out of habit, or personal comfort, it’s a powerful force when you make decisions every day.

Here’s the real truth: You can’t be rational if you are too emotional, but at the same time, you can’t be rational if you are not emotional.

When you are too emotional, you won’t make rational choices, even though you know what’s best for you.

Think of times you’ve decided against your better judgment, ate the cookie, had the drink, or smoked the cigarette.

When you are too emotional, your rational brain won’t win, even though you know what will make things better.

Dealing with life choices, especially, life-changing ones can sound difficult. Without the right information to help you rationalise, it could be overwhelming.

But if we had to use logic, and reason in all situations, – if we had to rationalise, and critically every decision – we’d be trapped in a cycle, unable to move in any direction because we would be caught in a loop as we analyse, and contemplate the pros and cons of every choice.

Decisions, even critical ones, are not just made away from emotions.

Your rational brain represents your ability to reason through various options whilst your emotional brain represents your instincts, impulses, and intuition.

While your thinking brain is making provision for your retirement, your feeling brain wants to plan for a vacation.

The rational brain is systematic and impartial, but also slow. Like a muscle, it’s built over time if you exercise it more often.

The emotional brain, however, makes decisions quickly and effortlessly, even though it’s often irrational.

While too much emotion can impair reasoning, a lack of emotion can be equally harmful.

The heart of reason

“The heart has reasons that reason knows nothing about,” says Pascal.

Our emotions are trained by years of logic and experience, retaining it all for real wisdom.

Gut feelings and intuition are an integral part of the ability to reason. While emotions can overwhelm rationality, rationality cannot exist without emotions.

While too much emotion can impair reasoning, a lack of emotion can be equally harmful. When emotion is impaired, decision-making suffers.

Make no mistake, your emotional brain drives most of your choices.

Michael Levine of Psychology Today, says every time we make a choice, our left-brain arm-wrestles with our right, but rationality only represents about 20% of human decision-making. He explains:

It is said that emotions drive 80% of the choices Americans make, while practicality and objectivity only represent about 20% of decision-making. Oh, and forget about making a decision when you are hungry, angry, lonely or tried. The acronym “HALT” is axactly the point here: DON”T DO IT! If you make a decision while feeling Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired (or God-forbid some combination of more than one of the above) emotion wins 100% of the time and will likely push you in the wrong direction.

Emotions are the most present, pressing and sometimes painful force in our lives. We have the tendency to allow emotions to dominate logical feelings.

We are driven more by our emotions. Reason without emotion is impotent.

We take chances quickly because we’re excited about new prospects.

“Without a doubt, our emotions dictate our thoughts, intentions and actions with superior authority to our rational minds. But when we act on our emotions too quickly, or we act on the wrong kinds of emotions, we often make decisions that we later lament,” says Dr Carmen Harra.

When close relatives are involved, our emotions dominate even more.

Human brain research has suggested that, as our minds have more to process, the likelihood to decide emotionally increases.

Less time for reflection may lead to more decisions that seem irrational, but the good news is that the emotional brain function to reduce and bound our reasoning which then creates the opportunity to reason more fully.

Some people succeed in balancing the two; some are always logical but depends on values, personality, and education.

The most important decisions we make in life tend to be those that overwhelm us and stress us out. And when we have too much information to consider, our ability to make the right decision is impaired. Jacqueline Claire Ciraldo writes:

Studies have shown that when our mind is overloaded with information, the emotional aspect of our brain tends to win out. When confronted with decisions we are usually faced with a lot to consider, which overwhelms the rational part of our brain. With so much stress put on the rational mind, it is too weak to put up a fight against the emotional mind.

The emotional brain drives our consciousness more than we think.

Ultimately, our emotion drives action. That’s because action is emotion.

While the rational brain exists to help you make calculated choices, 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,” says Mark Manson, author of Everything Is F*cked: A Book About Hope.

Your emotional brain is stubborn. Even in the face on facts, and data, it will still choose the path of comfort.

“..the two brains are like an elephant and its rider. The rider can steer and pull the elephant in a particular direction, but ultimately, the elephant is going to go where it wants to go,” says psychologist Jonathan Haidt.

The balance of power between the rider (your rational brain) and elephant(emotional brain) plays a large part in shaping your daily decisions and is typically skewed towards the latter, writes Haidt in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis.

No matter how you rationalise a decision, if you don’t feel like it, you won’t obey your thinking brain. Ultimately if the elephant decides to do something there is little the rider can do to stop it.

Your emotional brain sees itself as the intelligent, rational brain, and it believes it’s in control of your consciousness.

Even when you believe you are making rational decisions, the actual choice may, in reality, be based on emotion.

Rationality depends on a deeper system of regulation that consists largely of emotions and feelings, says Damásio.

Emotion can disrupt reasoning in certain circumstances, but without emotion, there is no reasoning at all.

“Emotions and feelings are not a luxury, they are a means of communicating our states of mind to others. But they are also a way of guiding our own judgments and decisions. Emotions bring the body into the loop of reason,” writes António R. Damásio in his book, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain.

Closing thoughts

The current age of information overload means, a greater amount of emotional decision making because your rational brain sometimes can’t handle all the stress that comes with making calculated choices

Becoming aware of emotions has the benefit of correcting many emotional biases. As you make decisions daily, if you can be mindful and become aware of your emotions, you can identify which decisions can be addressed rationally.

Despite the strength of your emotional brain, you can correct the many emotional biases, and give yourself the chance to make more complex decisions rationally.

Being overwhelmed with thought gives in to emotion and the emotional side of the brain loves you to just give in, take the easy option, and be done with it. Even if it’s bad, (unfortunately).

Staying on top means not overloading and getting weighed down which is a skill in itself. I have a system where I note almost all of my thoughts. I have shed loads of papers and folders as well as a few Apps. This is where my overwhelm lays but what works for me is that it’s all structured. There are some links in this post that explain how to build a system with not getting to overwhelmed in mind.

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