Reality Blind - Vol. 1

The Elephant and the Rider

Summary: Though it’s an oversimplification, it’s useful to describe the various layers and mechanisms of our brain as built on top of one another like separate brains inside our heads. What 'worked' in the deep past for our pre-human ancestors was retained and overlaid with additional changes and mutations on the way to becoming us. Brain structures and functions that were a poor “fitness match” for those ancient environments are no longer around. Gradually, some organisms became larger and more complex (in our mammalian lineage, new brain structures allowed for emotional bonding) and what was to become the neocortex developed on top of, and in complex synergy with, the older brain structures of the limbic system and the primitive ‘reptilian’ core. Thus, in a real way we each have an “inner worm”, “inner fish”, “inner insectivore”, etc., upon which are overlaid structures relevant to more recent environments, such as tribal savannah existence. Those ancient brains worked perfectly well without consciousness or self-awareness, and even today, still control the connections to our reward and punishment systems 25 . Psychologists have assigned these different neural systems labels of ‘thinking fast’ vs ‘thinking slow’ 26 . Slow thinking is more accurate but takes time and calm. Fast thinking is incredibly biased and inaccurate but is, well, fast. It’s also automatic and pretty much stress-free. Our ’new’ cortex and its advanced functions are kind of like the mahout (driver) on an elephant. The elephant is the reptilian (survival) and mammalian (emotional) areas of the brain and the driver is the neocortex (rational) area of the brain 27 . Once having learned to work together, they can accomplish amazing things. But, the elephant, like the ancient part of our brains, is incredibly strong, and unless under tight control, will go off and do impulsive and destructive things. Only very occasionally does our


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