The rider and the elephant

New York University Professor Jonathan Haidt uses the analogy of a rider on an elephant to describe the two basic motivational systems in the human brain. The rider represents the rational system – the part that plans, thinks through problems, and weighs potential benefit against cost. The elephant represents the emotional system – the part that enables us to feel, to instinctively respond to the world, and that provides the power for the journey.

When the rider and the elephant are working together, synchronised on their journey, they make great progress. But the elephant is nearly 100 times heavier than the rider, so if there is disagreement or distraction – when push comes to shove…guess who wins?

So often, we spend a disproportionate amount of time finessing the rational element of our lessons, or meetings, or plans and we fail to intelligently and deliberately invest in motivating the elephant.

Teaching and learning is a highly human, highly emotional experience. In our classrooms, in our learning journeys, the rider matters a lot but the elephant matters more.

Brain birth

You’ve probably heard of neuroplastity, right? Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change and reorganise itself throughout our life. Our brain literally changes itself to enable you and me to become better and more efficient at skills we practice. Brain circuits that we use regularly not only ‘wire together’ but, due to a process called myelination, can transmit information up to 100 times faster than standard brain circuits. If you’re not very good at knitting or sudoku or maths or telling jokes, it’s because you haven’t given your brain enough opportunity to adapt. Neuroplasticity is also the process that allows people like Jodie Miller to have half of her brain surgically removed and to recover to live a relatively normal life.

But, do you know about neurogenesis? It was only a few years ago that psychology and biology textbooks were stating that the adult human brain has approximately 100 billion brain cells and you can’t grow any more. Wrong. It turns out that mammals – like us – are constantly growing new brain cells;  particularly in the hippocampus, an area associated with memory and learning.

Ultimately, it is the mechanics of neuroplasticity and neurogenesis that allow us to learn.

It’s also why the phrase: “I’m just not good at _________” doesn’t really make sense scientifically. Instead, we should encourage the phrase: “I’m just not good at _________ yet“. Those three simple letters, y-e-t, encapsulate an understanding of the incredible ability of the human brain to help us become better at whatever we choose to practice.