In the battle to complete your New Year’s Resolutions this year, the only way to win is by training your elephant. So what do I mean?
Well, the elephant and rider is an analogy to describe the way the brain operates.*
So which part is which?
The smallest part of our brain, including the limbic or paleo mammalian brain and what’s known as the reptile brain, is the oldest and strongest brain. It is very powerful. This is the elephant in the analogy.
Our reptilian brain is concerned with survival, eating, breathing, sleep and sex. The limbic brain is responsible for forming relationships and creating emotions. As mammals we depend on others for our survival, so sociability is key.
In the neo mammalian phase, 500,000 years ago, we grew a large superior human brain, the prefrontal cortex. This provided us with the tools of conscious awareness, language, self-control, and the ability to think logically and strategically.
This logical brain is the rider in our analogy, which is the centre of thinking and where we synthesise ideas, long-term thinking, weighing up responses and nuance.
As Homo Sapiens (Wise Man) we like to believe that we primarily think with our human brain, but this is not the case. The reptilian and limbic brains are responsible for most of the decisions we make in our lives. Even important decisions such as getting married, having children, changing jobs are emotional decisions, driven by the reptilian and limbic brains. We justify them with rationality after the event using the human brain, but the true decision is made by emotion.
What we struggle with on a day to day, hour by hour basis, is the competing pulls of these three brains.
Why does the elephant always win?
Our emotional brain, although only small in size, in power is the size of a huge elephant. It is big, powerful, it moves quickly and gets things done. But it’s very short-sighted, reactive, and motivated by immediate rewards.
Our logical brain – the rider – might be smart, thoughtful, able to see the big picture and the right direction, but has much less power compared to the elephant he’s riding on.
In evolutionary terms our emotional brains have been around a lot longer – 350 million years to be precise. Responsive only to emotions and feelings, the elephant is easily startled and will react viscerally, running for miles while all the rider can do is cling on.
So although the rider represents the control process of the brain – planning, reasoning and conscious awareness – it can only ever be an advisor, subject to the emotional reactions of the elephant and, at times, hanging on for dear life.
How the elephant impacts on your resolutions
If our limbic, reptilian and human brains are working together, we are in control. Problems occur when they are in conflict. The rider and elephant need to be in absolute rapport if our intended actions are going to be carried out.
So if your New Year’s resolution is to eat more healthily, it’s not simply a case of filling your fridge with nutritious food, but understanding what causes you to eat badly. If you want to get fit, notice what is stopping you from pulling on your trainers and doing some exercise. It’s likely that emotional reasons are driving both behaviours.
If you’ve tried before and failed, you may need a bit more help to unpack what’s preventing you from succeeding. You will only succeed with your goals if you can train the elephant not to react to harmful stimulus, focusing it instead on positive goals. That’s what coaching does, it helps you to harmonise the three brains.
Coaching gives you the skills to choose to react differently. It helps you develop an awareness of the problem through challenge and create strategies to ensure you are able to step away from harmful behaviours – whether that’s negative self-talk, or eating too much chocolate when you’re sad or angry.
We literally help you train the elephant, so if your New Year’s resolutions are usually ditched by the time the bluebells appear, coaching might be just what you need.
* see Dan and Chip Heath in their book Switch, how to change things when change is hard.