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The Elephant in Your Brain

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 likened 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, orOMPFC) 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 floating around behind our eyes don’t have neurological primacy. In other words, they’re 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. Don’t believe it? Check your heart rate and palms next time you feel road rage. That spike in heart rate and the sweaty palms are your sympathetic nervous system–dominant defense mechanism kicking in to keep you safe from the “threat” of that driver who cut you off while talking on his cell phone.

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 (or give us a “high”). It also means adding more demands or stimulation to an already busy schedule.

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.

Finally, some evidence suggests that “willpower”—or the conscious “control” of unwanted impulses—may actually use up much of the brain’s fuel resources. Functional MRI studies that have looked at glucose utilization in the brain seem to show that self-governance is energetically costly (Cozolino 2010). The ability to discipline ourselves is a bank account that gets depleted quite quickly, especially if we’re making constant withdrawals without also making willpower-boosting deposits (such as enjoyment).

You don’t need to be a neuroscientist to get all of the above information. 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.

Shaping the Path

According to the Heath brothers, there’s one additional and critical part of the equation—the path the elephant treads. This is the environment: circumstances and structures that shape our choices, often without our conscious awareness.

According to the elephant rider analogy, when we complain that clients “don’t listen” or “can’t stick to a new program,” what we’re bemoaning is the loss of rational (or rider) control. In our clients, as in all humans, the left brain is the elephant rider. It is trying to stay on track with a good nutrition or fitness program, but it is operating in an obesogenic (tending to cause obesity), scary, emotionally taxing world.

Combine the elephant’s natural fear and avoidance responses with an environment that presents us every day with hundreds of decisions and lots of ways to get off track, and you can understand why clients are mentally exhausted and dipping into the doughnuts.

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.”

Point to the destination. The rider needs to know where he or she is going. Therefore, point often to the ultimate destination (a leaner body, a smaller pants size, the experience of being less winded when climbing stairs)—and let the rider know what it’s like there. For instance, draw from testimonials of clients who have taken a similar path, and reinforce the positive outcome of sticking with the program. Introduce your beginners to your experienced clients so they can share their experiences with those starting out.

Next, you can guide the “right brain” elephant in three ways:

Find the feeling. Help clients find joy in healthy behaviors while working through fears that may make them “rear up” and avoid those activities. Finding the feeling often begins with identifying clients’ key motivators (positive or negative) and speaking to them. It can also involve speaking to Self 2 by helping clients tap into what makes them feel “flow.” One way to do this is to spend more time finding workouts and nutrition habits that clients feel excited about and confident in—and doing more of those versus the ones they may dread.

Shrink the change. The elephant is easily spooked by big obstacles, and the critical Self 1 will quickly kick in to explain all the reasons why this new project of eating well and exercising can’t work. However, very small, practical, daily actions and habits are easily absorbed. Most often, smaller is better. Just be sure the habits are directed at the client’s biggest limiting factor. For example, if a client consumes alcohol daily, don’t ask him to stop drinking; instead, shrink the change by suggesting he avoid alcohol 2 days per week. Over time, based on his confidence, you can increase the number of days. However, in the beginning, start small.

Grow the client. In most change situations, clients feel small in the face of change. This inspires the fear response, which shuts down change. Help each client make change feel small (shrink the change), while helping the client feel “large” and confident (grow the client). As we’ll discuss later in the article, the best way to do this is to present habits that a client feels 90% or 100% confident he or she can do. When clients develop a habit they’re very confident they can do, they win another victory with each passing week. Challenges feel smaller, and clients feel bigger.

Last, you can shape the path in three ways:

Improve the environment. Our environment determines success or failure, so we must help our clients improve their environment in order to succeed. Getting snack foods off the table and replacing them with freshly cut veggies is one example.

Build habits. Once a client’s behavior becomes automatic, it no longer taxes the individual’s willpower. Healthy “action triggers” support habit building. For example, if a client starts drinking 500 milliliters of water (action) after brushing her teeth (trigger), the behavior can quite easily become automatic because the trigger is there.

Rally the herd. No one succeeds alone, so it’s important to create “support circles.” Introduce clients to each other, schedule fitness- and nutrition-oriented social meetings, and help clients build a “health-promoting network.” Elephants are social animals, after all!

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