Which Side of Your Brain Is Running the Show?

by John Berardi, PhD and Krista Scott-Dixon on Apr 23, 2015

We all like to assume that we’re rational, logical beings who make well-considered decisions based on a careful review of all the available evidence. But in their groundbreaking book Switch (Crown 2010), authors and brothers Chip and Dan Heath liken the right brain–left brain relationship to that of an elephant and the person riding it. The powerful, potentially unreliable elephant is the emotional, intuitive right brain. The rider is the rational left brain. The rider might be in charge for a while, but the elephant will always win in the end, especially if rider and elephant are at odds and the rider tires from constantly taking responsibility, making decisions and steering the elephant.

How does this analogy apply to your work in helping clients make healthy decisions? Read on to find out.

The Unruly Elephant

There are many reasons why the elephant may become unruly.

First, brain circuits dedicated to keeping us logical and reasonable (circuits like the orbital-medial prefrontal cortex, or OMPFC) were late developments in the evolutionary game. Our “smart human” brain components evolved much later than our “reptilian” components (which control things like breathing, heart rate, fluid balance, etc.); our “early mammalian” components (which control things like mating and social behavior); and our sensory and motor components (which help us see, hear, taste, smell, stay upright and play tennis) (Colozino 2010; Johnson 2004). The “smart human” brain components are not our evolutionary “default setting” and thus don’t guide our bodies and our behavior as much as we might prefer (Greenberg 2010).

For the most part, our physical sensations, feedback loops and emotions drive the bus. Whether we’re aware of it or not, most of the time the more primal brain circuits are in charge of our decisions (Ogden, Minton & Pain 2006). Indeed, the “smart human” brain contributes much less than we think.

Second, the “reptilian” and “early mammalian” brain parts are dedicated to our survival (Cozolino 2010; Greenberg 2010). They want to feed us, keep us happy, keep us safe and make us feel as good as possible. Yet "dieting" or embarking on a new fitness plan in the 21st century means purposely enduring discomfort and restricting activities and foods that soothe us. If you think about it, why would any client ever eat less and go to a gym with bright lights, loud music and unfamiliar equipment, in order to expend excess energy? To the primal brain, these things are a threat. Threats require defensive action—such as running away or playing dead. In the context of a wellness program, that means bailing on a gym membership, “flaking out” on a meal plan, being lazy or “forgetting” to plan a healthy dinner (Ogden, Minton & Pain 2006). Purposely enduring restriction, social awkwardness or discomfort goes against everything our brains evolved to do. So trying to persuade a client to do this is like trying to run new software on a very old computer.

You don’t need to be a neuroscientist to understand this. Just remember three things:

  1. In neurological terms, we’re wired for safety, comfort, energy conservation and survival.
  2. For most clients, working out and changing eating habits contravene those primal goals.
  3. When humans perceive a threat (real or imagined), their defense mechanisms kick in. When that happens, you won’t get anywhere with them, especially if you push harder.

Strategies for the Whole Brain and the Environment

So how can you, as a coach or trainer, intervene? According to the Heath brothers, you can support the rider’s rational brain in three ways:

Follow the bright spots. The rational brain is easily rallied by the stories and processes of previous successes. Therefore, in the case of nutrition or fitness coaching, highlighting previous clients’ successes through photos and stories isn’t just good marketing; it also helps future clients succeed.

Script the critical moves. Without clear, explicit, step-by-step instructions, the rider spins off into a world of "What if?" analysis. Get around this tendency by providing crystal-clear, easily measured habits for the client to adopt. For example, instead of simply asking a client to eat more veggies, keep the rider focused by specifying one habit; for example, “Add one serving of your favorite vegetable each day for the next week.”

For more ways to support the rational left brain, as well as suggestions for guiding the "right brain" elephant, please see "The Elephant in Your Brain" in the online IDEA Library or in the November 2014 issue of Mind-Body Wellness Review. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at (800) 999-4332, ext. 7.

PHOTOGRAPHY: Visnu Pitiyanuvath

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About the Authors

John Berardi, PhD

John Berardi, PhD IDEA Author/Presenter

As an elite nutrition coach and exercise physiologist, Dr. Berardi has coached hundreds of elite amateur and professional athletes. In fact, in the last two Winter Olympics alone, his athletes have collected over 25 medals, 12 of them gold. Further, for the last 3 years, Dr. Berardi has acted as the director of the world's largest body transformation project. This one-of-a-kind fat loss coaching program has produced more total weight loss than all 10 seasons of The Biggest Loser combined.

Krista Scott-Dixon

Krista Scott-Dixon IDEA Author/Presenter