A very simple model divides our brain into three areas. The reptilian brain controls our basic bodily functions and primary drivers such as eating, sleeping and sex. The limbic brain is where emotions, memories and habits are processed. The pre-frontal cortex is our brain’s executive centre responsible for higher order thinking.
The pre-frontal cortex is less of a decision-maker than you might expect. In fact, our emotions play a greater role in guiding our thinking and behaviour—what we think, how we think, how we make decisions and how we act on them. Even when we’ve made a rational decision, chances are our emotions made it first as the limbic brain functions faster. We then establish reasons to justify our gut reaction.
“Far from interfering with rationality,” asserts neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, author of the influential 1994 book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, “the absence of emotion and feeling can break down rationality and make wise decision making almost impossible.”
Emotions are designed to mobilise us to deal quickly with important interpersonal or threatening events. They are critical to our survival. Emotions contain data about ourselves, other people and the world around us. Remaining open to feelings gives us valuable early data points that help us think and act more intelligently.
Imagine, for example, you’re in a hurry driving to work. A change in the environment—the sound of a police car siren—triggers a rapid emotional response. The emotion makes you pay attention and generates thought. You realise you have been speeding, possibly endangering the lives of others. This motivates behaviour and you slow down.
Not all of our knee-jerk emotional reactions are effective of course. The key is to learn to harness both the emotional and the thinking areas of our brain to ensure we are managing our own emotions rather than allowing our emotions to manage us.