Notes from Jonathan Haidt's The Happiness Hypothesis, Chapter One 'The Divided Self' pp. 1-22

Why does Haidt use the term elephant rider to describe the rational part of our minds?
Devise metaphors to describe the various systems which function simultaneously in our psyches:
  • Mind vs. Body: ‘The Gut Brain’
  • Left Brain vs. Right Brain
  • New Brain vs. Old Brain
  • Controlled vs. Automatic Choice

Plato's Model of the Psyche

The self is a chariot and the calm rational part of the mind holds the reins. The charioteer must control two horses . The horse on the right, or nobler side, is upright in frame and well jointed, with a neck and a regal nose.... he is a lover of honor with modesty and self-control, companion to true glory, he needs no whip and is guided by verbal commands alone. The other horse is a crooked great jumble of limbs... companion to wild beasts and indecency, he is shaggy around the ears-- deaf as a post-- and just barely yields to horse whip and goad combined. (Plato, Phaedrus 253d)

Freud's Model of the Psyche:

2300 years later the Viennese psychologist Sigmund Freud divided the mind into three parts: the ego (the conscious rational self); the superego (the conscience created from the rules of society); and the id (the desire for pleasure... lots!... now!)

Jonathan Haidt's metaphor for the Freudian Model of the Psyche is a horse and buggy where the driver struggles to control a disobedient, hungry, lustful horse with his father sitting behind him, telling him what to do.

Contemporary Models of the Psyche:

During the second half of the 20th century, theories of the psyche were dominated by 'information processing' and 'rational choice' models which theorized that our brains functioned like machines. People are rational agents who set goals and pursue them intelligently by using information. 

But we keep doing such stupid things. Why do we fail to control ourselves when we do what we know is not good for us?

Ex. I'll resist eating dessert (in the abstract) but not if a luscious piece of Devil's Food Cake is sitting right in front of me on the table.
Ex. I know! I'll wake up before breakfast tomorrow and do it then. (Fat Chance.)
At many moments we feel of two minds about things. Our minds are divided into parts whose impulses sometimes conflict.

Haidt's Divided Self

In days gone by this mind of mine used to stray wherever selfish desire or lust or pleasure would lead it. Today this mind does not stray and is under the harmony of control, even as a wild elephant is controlled by the trainer. (Buddha, Dhammapada verse 326)

Jonathan Haidt likens the divided self to an elephant with a rider perched on its back: I am a rider on the back of an elephant. I can tell it what to do-- go left or go right-- but if the elephant really wants to do something, I have no control. After all, the elephant's feet are on the ground.

What are the most interesting new models of the human mind?

In recent years, scientists studying the human psyche now posit that we have four separate systems working at once within our psyche.

Mind vs. Body: ‘The Gut Brain’

Various organs of the body have minds of their own. (We have a 'gut brain'. We have a 'sex brain'. We have a 'heart brain'.) These processes are controlled by the autonomic nervous system and are by definition un-conscious. The 'gut brain' controls the amazing physical tasks which give our bodies energy: digestion and elimination. Hundreds of millions of neurons line the whole alimentary track. (Sad, but true: a chicken can run around for minutes after you cut its head off.)  (To learn more, read this article by Akshat Rathi, "Science says your gut feeling isn't a metaphor" Quartz 6-10-15)

Left Brain vs. Right Brain

During the second half of the 20th century doctors and scientists have studied the ways that the two hemispheres of the brain work together and sometimes apart.

The left hemisphere of our brains takes in visual information from the right eye while the right side of our brain processes information from the left eye. The left side of the brain is responsible for language and analyzes information. The right side is adept at processioning patterns, particularly human faces. The mind is a confederation of these two modules, but they are capable of working independently and even at times at cross purposes.

3. New Brain vs. Old Brain

As humans have evolved through the ages, the brain itself evolved. The brain can be likened to a house like the one your parents bought when they were young, but as their family grew, the house grew too. First, they built a deck, and then a new kitchen enclosed the deck, and then two new bedrooms were built above the new kitchen.

The brain evolved in the same way. We began with only three rooms:
  • the hindbrain (connected to the spinal column)
  • a midbrain
  • and a forebrain attached to the sensory organs at the front of our skulls.
  • As the brain evolved, it kept adding rooms to the front, away from the spinal column.
In the earliest mammals, the forebrain added a shell with the following parts:
  • the hypothalamus which coordinates our drives and motivations
  • the hippocampus which stored  and retrieved memories
  • and the amygdala which controls emotional learning and responding
Together these brain parts make up the limbic system which has been around inside of humans for eons.

Social mammals (including primates) evolved new layers of brain matter which surrounded the limbic system, but in evolutionary terms, these changes have only happened very recently.

The neocortex, in particular the frontal cortex, controls out thinking, planning and decision making in response to an immediate situation. Is the frontal-cortex the seat of reason?

That would be an oversimplification because the frontal cortex also enabled the development of more complex emotions. The orbitofrontal cortex may very well be the seat of Freud's Id: it sizes up rewards or punishments for a certain course of behavior in terms of pleasure vs pain, gain vs. loss. When we are drawn to a meal, a landscape, an attractive person or repelled by a dead animal, a bad song or a blind date, the orbitofrontal cortex is at work:

Neurologist Antonio Damasio has done studies of people whose frontal cortex has been damaged due to stroke, a tumor, or a blow to the head. These people demonstrate a profound loss of emotion. They do not respond to imagery which depicts horrible or beautiful subjects, yet their reasoning and logical abilities are intact. In the real world they find it very difficult to function because they are paralyzed when it comes to making decisions. Whereas we size up a problem, with it's pros and cons quickly and then act, people with damaged frontal cortexes find themselves unable to choose. While we can size up a situation instantly with an emotional reaction and then feed two or three options to the rational, decision making aspect of our mind, people with damaged prefontal cortexes are unable to choose from the hundreds of options they face.

Our elephant rider must work with his or her emotions to guide us. It is this union of reason with emotionality which makes action possible.

To learn more about the map of the brain, check out the TED talk by Dr. Allan Jones:

4. Controlled vs. Automatic Choice

During the 1990's psychological experiments pioneered by John Bargh showed that most mental processes occur automatically without the need for conscious control or attention. Our controlled processing is limited. we can only think consciously about one thing at a time, but automatic processes run in parallel and can handle many tasks at once-- hundreds-- but we can only control one thought at a time.


The history of life on this planet is full of organisms with sophisticated automatic processing systems. Controlled processing requires language. To plan something complex, to weigh the pros and cons of various options, to analyze the causes of past successes and failures, you must use the controlled processes of the mind.

Planning and reasoning only arrived in the most recent eye blink of evolution. It is like new software: Elephant Rider 1.0, and we are still working our the bugs in our reasoning and planning. Our automatic processes have been around for eons. That is why robots have a long, long way to go before they will be able to imitate human behavior. Our automatic system triggers quick and reliable action related to the prospect of pleasure and pain. Our automatic system triggers our survival instinct.

  • So, in reality, the elephant rider evolved to be the servant of the elephant, not the other way round. The rider is the 'interpreter module'. The elephant is everything else: the gut feelings, the visceral reactions, the emotions and intuitions of the ancient automatic system. The rider and the elephant can work cooperatively, but they often do not.
  • Our minds are composed of loose confederations of parts, but we identify with and pay too much attention to only one part: conscious verbal thinking.
  • We make pronouncements, vows, and resolutions and then we are surprised by an inability to carry them out.
  • In contrast to the tradition of Greek Virtue morality developed by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume asserted, 'Reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them."  (Hume, Treatise on Human Nature (1738)).