Elephant and The Rider

Lesson objective:

In this lesson, we explain the example of a rider and an elephant as a metaphor to the brain’s conscious and unconscious activities. With the rider representing conscious brain activity (2% to 5%), and the elephant representing unconscious brain activity (95% to 98%). The relationship between the elephant and the rider is a symbiotic relationship and their need for each other is mutual.

An easy way to understand how we experience the relationship between conscious and unconscious processes in the brain is as follows. 

Elephants, the largest land animals in the world, are amazing creatures in many ways. While their power and size are clear, there are a few, less visible, aspects of elephants that are important to emphasize.

  • Elephants are very social. 
  • They grieve the loss of loved ones.
  • They have excellent memories. 
  • They are highly sensitive. 
  • They get scared around small animals, including mice.

In some cultures, elephants are pack animals, carrying people and goods across long distances. In some parts of India, police officers ride atop elephants that they have trained since they were small.

So, imagine someone riding atop the elephant.

The rider on top of the elephant knows where he needs to go. His direction is clear, and because the elephant is so large, the rider only needs to provide minimal direction and control. In short, the rider knows the route, but he needs the elephant to get him there. They need each other. They rely on each other. Neither one will arrive at the destination without the other. 

The rider has to think a bit more than the elephant. He must ration goods, get more supplies, and maintain a clear direction. The rider controls a part of the resources needed to complete the journey, but he desperately needs the elephant to get there. The rider needs the elephant to survive the journey. 

In this metaphor, the rider represents what we experience as that 2-5% part of the brain, the conscious brain to which one has introspective and reflective access, the part with which you can directly communicate. 

The rider does not represent a specific part of the brain, but a series of networks and connections that enable certain deliberate and directed activities that are particularly important for humans, including: 

  • Rational thinking
  • Learning new information
  • Regulation of emotions 
  • Elements of perspective-taking and empathy 

Again, these aspects of the “rider” are not one specific area of the brain, but rather a series of functions, many of which are contained in interconnected networks in the front of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex. 

To put it simply, the rider is deliberative. He thinks, he c alculates—perhaps slowly, but often accurately. The rider calms the elephant when it starts to get anxious. The rider corrects the path when the elephant drifts off course.

It is important to remember, though, that the rider needs the elephant constantly. He is in no way better than the elephant, as the two have a mutually dependent relationship. 

The vast majority–98%— of the brain’s unconscious activity is like the elephant. The elephant is strong and sturdy, doesn’t have to calculate distance, read the directions in the sun and stars, or manage supplies. But the elephant needs to jump out of the way of holes in the road or dangerous animals. The elephant can handle many roadblocks and barriers that the rider could not handle alone. 

The rider needs the elephant to do some of the heavy work that he cannot do. 

Like the elephant, the unconscious functions of our brains are generally invisible to introspection and reflection. You cannot access them much of the time. Like the elephant, the unconscious functions of our brains are somewhat hard to communicate with, but we do learn, over time, to build a healthy working relationship and communication between the elephant and the rider. 

We do not “tell” our lungs to breathe, or our hearts to beat. 

We do not specifically control the temperature of our bodies, or all of the emotions we feel in a given moment. We do not command our eyes to see color, process shapes, and feel pain. 

All of this critical, but mostly automatic work is done below our conscious awareness. It is done by the elephant. But, with time and effort, we can begin to understand many of these automatic processes and bring some of them a bit more under control. 

You experience unconscious and conscious processes in your brain much like the elephant and the rider experience each other.