Neuroscience Stress Management

Introduction in the Neuroscience of Stress – The Rider and Elephant Metaphor

Rider and Elephant; Neuroscience; Metaphor; Stress

You know by now that I am passionate about Neuroscience. Well, one of the basic concepts for one to grasp, at the beginning of their neuroscience journey, is the idea of the triune brain and the Rider and Elephant Metaphor.

I have started to introduce this basic neuroscience metaphor in my PCM trainings. I find it to be one of the easiest ways to explain what happens when us or someone else enters in distress and starts to act unlike themselves.

I also believe that once we understand it, it makes place for us to be more forgiving – both with ourselves and the others, while it does not take away the responsibility we all have towards our actions and behaviours.

Let’s start: the most well-known macro description of the brain anatomy is, probably, the Triune Brain Theory. It is a very old description of the brain, having been proposed by Paul MacLean in 1952.

Of course, it is over-simplified, but it still holds some truth, and it helps us understand the main functions of the brain, at a very macro level. From this point of view, it still keeps a high historical and didactical value.

The Triune Brain Theory and the Rider and Elephant Metaphor

What the theory says it’s that the brain is composed out of 3 parts, corresponding to different stages of evolution.

Triune Brain - Introduction in the Neuroscience of Stress – The Rider and Elephant Metaphor
Source: Paul MacLean – Triune brain theory (1952), https://waitbutwhy.com/2017/04/neuralink.html

First, we have the Brain Stem – it’s the most ancient part of the brain, and it is thought to have appeared around 300 million years ago. It’s mostly responsible for maintaining body functions, such as breathing and heart rate; routing information up and down between the brain and the nervous system, some instinctive behaviours and also, motor learning. It’s often called the reptilian brain, because that part of the brain is dominant in reptiles. But then again, this is not 100% reflecting reality, because the reptiles also have structures equivalent to the limbic system, and the cortex, to some extent.

Now we move to the Limbic System: it evolved mostly in small mammals, and this is why MacLean called it the Paleomammalian brain. It is thought to have appeared around 200-250 million years ago, and it is mostly responsible for the treatment of memory and emotions, as well as taking care of our primitive survival functions: feeding, reproduction, parenting, etc.

Then, the Cortex, is the most recent part of the brain. It is particularly large in primates, and even more so in humans. It is thought to have evolved around 150.000 years ago. Therefore, it is much more recent than the other 2 parts of the brain.

Just in order to put these numbers into perspective, if the brain history was 24h, the history of the cortex corresponds to around 45 seconds.

The cortex is responsible for all the complex functions of the brain, including perception, planning, attention, abstract thinking, language, empathy, inhibitions, etc.

I’d just want to repeat, that this division should be considered as a historical approximation, and not necessary a scientific validated subdivision.

Also, on a scientific note, it is wrong to say that mammals evolved from reptiles. We can only say that they have a common ancestor, some hundreds of million years ago, and that they evolved from that common ancestors. But nobody knows how the brain of those common ancestors looked like.

The Rider and Elephant Metaphor

Sometimes though, in order to simplify the conversation about the brain, we might want to simply call these 3 divisions as follows:

  • The cortex – we’ll call it the Rider (Conscious Brain)
  • The limbic system and the reptilian brain – we’ll call it the Elephant (Unconscious brain).

The metaphor of the Rider and the Elephant has been first coined by psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book “The Happiness Hypothesis”.

The oldest 2 structures (the Elephant) are old and very powerful. The elephant doesn’t use words, it doesn’t have any verbal function, and is concerned with survival.

Then, about 150.000 y. ago, the Rider (the cortex, and in particular the pre-frontal-cortex) was formed. The conscious brain has a lot of new functions: it can use words, language, can time-travel – it can remember the past and anticipate the future. It also has superior functions: like planning, creativity, problem solving, empathy, inhibitions, critical thinking, etc.

The biggest problem is that the Rider can function only when the Elephant is calm. This is why, many times, even if we have very good plans for, let’s say, organisational change… if we don’t engage the Elephant of the teams, and not just their conscious brain, things might not happen as desired.

There are many differences between these brain structures.

I will mention here 4 important ones:

  1. The Rider solves complex problems, while the Elephant solves simple problems.
  2. The Rider is flexible and open to novelty. It’s the part of the brain saying “how about trying to solve this in a different way?”; what about this new option? The Elephant is more rigid. If I have a belief that served me for years, the Elephant memorised it and its tendency will be to always apply it in similar contexts. It takes continuous effort and awareness from the Rider to change it.
  3. Another important difference: The Rider is focused on positive information – he wants us to be well. The Elephant is focused on negative information: it wants us not to be bad – focused on survival/security and… very important here: on what is familiar.
  4. The Rider gets tired, as it uses a lot of energy, whereas the Elephant can go on for a long time. That’s why, after an intense day of workshop on defining the business strategy of our department, we might feel very tired, compared to a Saturday when we spend time with our friends or family.

When both the Rider and Elephant work in sync, life is good. But when the Rider is tired or the Elephant is triggered by strong emotions, the Elephant takes over, and is very hard for the Rider to get back in control. 

So, what does this metaphor and advice boils down to?


Most of us spend most of our time trying to persuade other people’s riders, we give them all these reasons: here are the 3 reasons why you are wrong, or why you should see it my way, when in fact, the way to persuade people is to speak with their elephant first.

The Elephant is a lot stronger than the Rider. If you get somebody feeling the truth of what you are saying, and feeling like they like you, or they like what you’re saying, and the elephant kind of wants to go in your direction, then it’s effortless to persuade the rider to go along.

But if the Elephant is digging in its hills and doesn’t want to go, doesn’t want to be dragged along by you to the conclusions you want to get them to, then there is really nothing you can say that will persuade the rider.

Every discourse and initiative for change can work if we recognise that we are all mostly Elephants.

And the metaphor is very useful in explaining what is happening under stress – the elephant takes over and throws off the Rider.

Let’s look in more detail at the hijacking of the cortex – or, in other words…

When the elephant is frightened

When the Elephant feels safe, it leaves the Rider to guide and use all its super-abilities.

When there is a threat around, the Elephant fulfils its biological mission: it helps us survive. How? Just as it has trained for hundreds of million years.

It starts the Fight/Flight/Freeze reaction and helps us deal with the threat, be it by fighting it, running from it or freezing and hoping it goes away.

Most of the biggest communication and relationship problems appear when one of us says or does something that frightens the Elephant of the other person. The second persons’ Elephant confuses this social threat with a life-threatening threat and starts the same mechanisms as for life threatening situations.

For example, this can happen during a feedback session with a colleague, when she tells us that we did something wrong and we become defensive. We don’t listen to her anymore and, while she speaks, we already prepare our arguments to combat her points. Or, we disengage from the conversation, withdraw inside ourselves and we are not open to interaction and to whatever she says. Or we simply start to feel blocked and it’s hard to focus.

Therefore, our most-important stake when communicating, and this is based on rigorous neuroscience, is to maintain the Elephant of the other calm.

Once it gets scared, emotional hijacking appears and all our efforts of giving feedback, influencing or convincing become useless, because we’ll be carrying out the rest of the conversation with a brain structure that was trained for hundreds of millions of years to survive, not to discuss and collaborate.

One other important thing about the emotional hijacking is that in a state of emotional hijacking, we lose 75% of our cognitive capacities.

This means that we are not really ourselves when we are stressed, and even less so when we are very, very stressed and for longer periods of time.

So, let’s be kinder to ourselves and to others when we are under stress. Let’s offer time and space for the elephant to feel safe again. Let’s charge some batteries… and then, our conversations might become constructive again.

Thank you for reading,

Magda.

Note: I have based this article on the NeuroMindfulness Institute’s “NeuroMindfulness Coach Certification – Practitioner Level” course, which I have completed in 2020 and which I really recommend. If you sign up to my newsletter, you will access a 15% discount to the course. Feel free to ask me any questions about it.


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