Know your own mind

By: Arthur Wenk , May 15, 2012

Is it true we all have "two minds"?

Everyone has two minds: the rational mind and the emotional mind

Have you ever asked yourself, “Now why did I do that?” Have you ever tried to concentrate on a personal problem only to find that you keep getting off topic? Have you ever had the sensation that you weren’t really in control of your own mind? In fact, we have not one mind but two.

That’s right, two minds:  the rational mind and the emotional mind. The rational mind—the neo-cortex, that highly-developed thinking machine of which we humans are so proud—doesn’t arrive with us at birth. It begins developing only around age five and doesn’t achieve maturity until age twenty (even later for males, which is one reason that automobile insurance rates are so high for young men). Until age five we depend on the emotional mind, the amygdala, the human vestige of the mammalian brain designed to keep animals alive. The amygdala is the source of emotions. This is the part of the brain that decides on fight vs. flight in response to a life-threatening situation.  Good thing, too: by the time the rational brain worked out a solution, one might well be dead. 

Unfortunately our world is a good deal more complicated than the world in which the mammalian brain came into being. Being born human has been compared to coming on stage in the second act of a play for which we have no script. As infants we try with our entire primitive mind to figure out what’s going on and what we need to do to stay alive. By and large we succeed. Depending on our surroundings we develop individual core beliefs to insure our survival. These basic messages may include “I am powerless and so I need to please people,” or “I have to get what I need now because there may not be any more.” If we’ve grown up with particularly loving parents, our core belief may be “The world is a safe place and I can act in it.” If we’ve grown up in particularly difficult circumstances, we may preserve core beliefs such as “I deserve to be rejected and abandoned,” or “Others are either oblivious or mean.”

Then we grow up, entrust our best interests to our rational mind and tend to forget that our emotional mind even exists. Until we get triggered. Then an iron gate closes between our two minds, leaving us on the side of the emotional mind which leads us to do and say things that in retrospect seem to be rather strange. (Have you ever listened to what you actually say when you are really upset?) But we can’t long endure a conflict between the two parts of our brain, so the rational mind happily comes up with all kinds of excuses—we called them rationalizations for a reason—justifying our behaviour. 

Later we try to reflect on what has happened but often the emotional mind simply won’t let us. It’s looking out for our survival, following core beliefs formed during our earliest years. And in a conflict between our rational mind, which seeks understanding, and our emotional mind, which seeks survival, the emotional mind will always win.

Any therapy which addresses only symptoms without dealing with core beliefs may bring temporary relief but will not prevent the emotional mind from taking over when it feels threatened. One of the aims of psychotherapy is first to make us aware of these early core beliefs and then to help us “re-parent” ourselves by teaching Little You that the Adult You will keep him or her safe. 

Arthur Wenk holds a doctorate in musicology and masters degrees in information science, music theory, and psychology.

Art‘s client-centered approach is based on empathic listening, helping clients integrate thoughts, feelings and actions, and assisting them to revise self-stories that have kept them enmeshed in problems: all in the interest of achieving mental, emotional and spiritual wholeness.

Art currently practices at Wilson Counselling Associates in Oakville, Ontario.