Just how rational are we?

We tend to anthropomorphise some creatures, particularly whales and dolphins given that their jaw shape lends itself to an interpretation of having human-like smiles. In the picture above we’d all love to imagine that the whale is grinning at its new found friend’s touch, but I suspect not.

While I’m sure the whale pictured is not smiling, there is no doubt there is some form of amiable connection happening at some level. So why would there be any meaningful connection between most of the very different creatures pictured?

Apart from all being hairy, warm-blooded, breast-feeders the main thing they have in common is their limbic brain structures – often referred to as the mammalian brain. It is here that these creatures, along with humans, process emotion and in doing so make meaningful connection with others – even with species they would normally have no contact with in the natural world.

It turns out that this part of the brain plays a far bigger role in our decision-making that we ever imagined. We tended to believe that our brilliant neo-cortex (the outer convoluted layer) was the place that dominated our thinking with it’s logical and rational processing of information. It turns out that often however, that this is not the case.

It seems we process many decisions with the limbic brain using emotion and then use our higher processing powers in the neo-cortex to simply justify the emotional and potentially irrational decision we have already made. Ouch! That means that many of the ways we seek to teach and influence others are just not hitting the mark. Even now, we can picture some who will rail against the concept of “the irrational decision-making human” because they are emotionally invested in the way they seek to influence others and will easily find ways to refute this with powerful logic derived from their very clever neo-cortices!

One of the main hurdles to effective learning therefore is how our minds work. No matter how smart and rational we tend to think we are, we are often not. We want to believe we’re rational, but it turns out that often we just rationalise what our emotions tell us, and our emotive responses are not always right.

So, if emotion is so important, we need to find ways of engaging the limbic brain more in a ways that logic, facts and figures will not.

Narrative plays a role in doing so very effectively. When we hear stories we tend to listen because they usually they come bundled not only with facts and detail, but with context and emotion. It’s often said that if you listen to a persuasive and memorable speaker, it’s not the facts and details they impart that you will recall, it will be the stories they told. They have engaged our mammalian brains.

The sharing of experiences through narrative has been the main way we have imparted knowledge through the generations. If we truly want to engage and impart meaning to others to aid in positive change we need to be thinking about narrative a little bit more.

If a cat can relate to a whale, or a dog to an elephant, surely we can start to relate better to our own species with the design of approaches based on how we actually operate, not how we’d like to think we operate?

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About the Author

Frank Connolly is the Principal of “Think Quick”, a business that adds value through thinking differently. His work history covers all sectors and includes initiatives that have yielded bottom line benefit in the 10’s of millions of dollars.

Frank has worked across Australia, South East Asia, China, the Middle East and Africa where he has trained and facilitated multiple thinking methods and been acknowledged by Edward de Bono as one of the foremost practitioners of the de Bono thinking methods worldwide.

Frank believes strongly that if we can improve the way we think, the actions that follow also improve.


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