The Rider and His Elephant

Here is an interesting story. Jonathan Haidt tells us in his book5 of the metaphorical concept of the "elephant and the rider" to describe our control of emotional drives and actions. Both the elephant and rider are found in each of us and represent different aspects of our psyche. The rider is intelligent with a grip on the reigns that guides the elephant in its tasks (or through life). The rider can see the overall task, is responsible for it, and has the judgment and skills to deal with it. The rider is associated with our conscience, our conscious and controlled thinking, and planning for the future. Perhaps the rider is like Freud's super ego and ego.

The elephant on the other hand, is the rest of our psyche; it includes fears, emotions, intuitions, and visceral reactions. It contains the reward and reinforcement centers in our brains, and embodies the powerful drives that lurk in the old parts of our brain that have helped our species survive. Like the rider, the elephant has knowledge, but of a different kind. It is more like Freud's id or primitive drives. In our psyche, the elephant represents drives and appetites that are perhaps more subconscious than conscious.

When a skilled rider teams with a strong elephant, both can do well and accomplish much. However—and here is the point—the elephant within us, being so big and powerful in comparison to the rider within us, will do whatever it wants or feels it must under certain circumstances. If the elephant is suddenly attacked by a hungry tiger, it will react powerfully and pay no attention to the rider no matter how knowledgeable the rider is about fighting tigers. When a stimulus strikes the elephant as overwhelmingly dangerous, reflexive drives take over and the rational thinker is left struggling for control. The rider is vulnerable to losing control of the elephant.

This is one way we can think of drug addiction or abuse. Drugs are seen by both the rider and the elephant within us, and the question is, who will control our actions? If our appetites for drugs dominate, the elephant might take over. The primitive drives and appetites that have ensured the survival of our species are very strong. If the sensible rider has an influence over the elephant and can guide its actions, we might avoid drugs. Whether we take drugs or not depends on our overall vulnerability (how much the elephant wants it versus how skilled and determined the rider is to avoid it). A major factor is how well the rider has been trained, and on how well the rider has trained the elephant within. Responding to crises can be prepared for, at least to some degree.

What about the responsibility of the rider for the elephant? We all know that we cannot totally give up responsibility for control of our elephant. If we take drugs and have an accident, then we are responsible. If we take illegal drugs and have to face the law, it is our fault. It is clear that we must take responsibility to maintain law and society. But perhaps there are some circumstances—the equivalent of the appearance of a hungry tiger—where absolute control by the rider is diminished and his responsibility is reduced. Dealing with these difficult circumstances requires wisdom and often help.

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Brain Blaster

Brain Blaster

Have you ever been envious of people who seem to have no end of clever ideas, who are able to think quickly in any situation, or who seem to have flawless memories? Could it be that they're just born smarter or quicker than the rest of us? Or are there some secrets that they might know that we don't?

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