A metaphorical model of the mind

How can a monkey, an elephant and a lizard help you reach your goals? Let me tell you a story.

Dave Gray
Dave Gray
Mar 25, 2016 · 10 min read

We all have brains, but they don’t come with an operating manual, like a car or a blender. Wouldn’t it be nice if they did?

Since we don’t have that operating manual, most of us simply clunk along and do our best, with mixed results.

There is a better way. With a little work, you can learn how to tinker with your brain and tune it for optimal performance. It sounds a little scary, and it does take some courage to plumb the depths of your own mind. But I’ve been doing it for a while now, and the results have been astonishing.

I have improved my listening skills. I am able to stay focused on the important rather than the urgent, maintaining a calm, relaxed, upbeat attitude, and I am no longer distracted or annoyed by little things.

I find that all the little things I usually procrastinate on— including tough conversations — are getting done. My office is clean, bright and organized. My mind is clear and fresh for work, I’m more proactive and much more productive with my time. And I feel great.

And I did all this over Skype, without leaving my office!

So how did this happen?

In researching my upcoming book, Liminal Thinking, I came across the work of Mike Parker, an executive coach who employs systems thinking, visualization and guided meditation in his work. After interviewing Mike I decided to give his services a try. I’m continuing to work with him, and so far have been very pleased with the results, but that’s another story for another time. What I want to talk about today is his model for the mind.

The model is very important to Mike’s work, because he is literally helping people rewire their brains. In his first session with clients, Mike shares a working model of the brain where he describes three elements:

  1. The prefrontal cortex, roughly synonymous with the conscious mind.
  2. The neocortex, roughly synonymous with the unconscious mind, and
  3. The limbic system, or instinctive mind, which he calls the primitive brain.
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I won’t describe his entire approach here, but what fascinates me is the way that these elements work together as a system. Like a good team, when they work well together, good things happen. When they don’t work well together, life can get, well, messed up.

Meet the team.

Mike Parker’s practice is mostly about learning how to increase the communication and teamwork between these mental systems.

The conscious mind is a linear processor. This is what you might imagine as the little controller inside your brain, the part of you that pays attention, talks to people, reads books, orders coffee, and decides what to do.

When we communicate with words and text, we are communicating with our conscious mind.

The unconscious mind is a multidimensional processor. It works in the background most of the time, doing many things simultaneously.

For many years, scientists have noted that the majority of electrical activity in the brain (20 times more than conscious activity) operates in the background. They used to consider this activity random background noise, but recently have discovered that this “noise” was actually a massively parallel processing system that is involved in many brain functions, including:

  • Thinking about yourself, including your memories and personal identity,
  • Reflecting on your emotions,
  • Imagining what others are thinking and feeling.,
  • Moral thinking, like judging whether something is good or bad, fair or unfair,
  • Thinking about groups, stereotypes, belonging, and “otherness,”
  • Remembering the past,
  • Imagining the future, and
  • Understanding stories.

Scientists call this the Default Mode Network, and it’s most active when you are resting passively, or daydreaming, although it operates pretty much continuously in the background. Marcus Raichle, the neurologist credited with discovering it, calls it “the brain’s dark energy,” a “symphony orchestra” of electrical activity operating at multiple frequencies.

The instinctive mind, or limbic system, is concerned with survival. It is constantly scanning the environment for potential threats, and assesses all situations and information based on a binary “threat/no threat” basis. It is obsessive, always on the lookout for trouble, and generally responds to situations it deems threatening with aggression, anxiety or depression. This is known as the fight-or-flight response, and it floods the brain with a cocktail of hormones designed to divert energy from the brain to the muscles, and prime the body with increased strength and speed, so you can either respond with violence or run away. Once this limbic response has been triggered, it can take hours, or even a day, to get back to normal. Long-term exposure to stress can lead to physical and mental illness.

This limbic response is a good thing to have. If you run into a bear, or a snake, or some other legitimate threat, it’s a huge help to be instantly ready to fight or run.

The problem in modern society — especially at work — is that many situations are not actually life-threatening, but nevertheless teem with things that trigger limbic responses: Overbearing bosses, territorialism, politics, fear of getting fired, and so on. These stressors multiply and infect the work environment, leading to a workforce that is literally incapable of exercising higher brain functions.

When people are in the grip of fear, anxiety or depression, or chronic stress, they are unable to make realistic assessment of situations. The pre-frontal cortex goes “offline.” Creative thinking and innovation, indeed, all higher-level brain functions, are stifled.

The limbic response isn’t limited to work. It can be triggered at home just as easily. You often feel most vulnerable with the people you love and live with. They know you well, and because of that closeness, because they mean so much to you, their words and actions have that much more potential to hurt you, even when they don’t mean to do so. Have you ever had an argument with a loved one or spouse that ended with one of you sleeping on the couch? That’s what I’m talking about.

That instinctive mind that can be such a powerful force for survival ends up working against us in many aspects of modern life.

So what can you do about this?

How can you turn around a dysfunctional, clunky team with poor communication skills into a finely-tuned system that’s functioning optimally, helping you maintain a positive frame of mind and accomplish your goals?

Setting goals.

One challenge is to find a way to communicate consciously-formed goals to the unconscious mind. The unconscious mind is holistic and nonlinear, and you can’t just talk to it like you talk to a person. The unconscious mind works in, imagery, sensation and metaphor. So finding ways to communicate goals to the unconscious is an exercise in imagination. For example, one of my goals was to work on those limbic moments in my marriage (I don’t want to sleep on the couch if I don’t have to!). Mike asked me to imagine a vivid mental image that represented those “trigger” moments. I imagined a red lightning bolt firing between us. Next, he asked me to create a mental image of what “good” looks like. I imagined a golden egg, or sphere, encompassing both of our heads.

Vivid mental imagery like this is a way to communicate goals to the unconscious. It’s like an instruction for the unconscious mind.

Putting the unconscious to work.

Another challenge is to find ways to distract or otherwise occupy the conscious mind, so the unconscious mind can emerge to start working on the problem. Mike achieves this through a kind of guided meditation. Once a goal has been clearly visualized, it takes about 20 to 30 minutes to go through a guided meditation and “set the program” so the unconscious can get to work.

This is a very pleasant exercise, like guided daydreaming. I emerge from these guided meditation sessions feeling like I just had a nice nap and a brain massage all rolled into one.

After a session with Mike, I don’t do anything differently, but I have found that these small instructions and guidelines I am giving to my unconscious have a subtle, but powerful, and cumulative, effect. My mind is clearer, I am more proactive, and most importantly, I am achieving the goals I set for myself and have an overall feeling of progress.

A metaphorical model of the mind.

What I want to share with you today is a model of the mind that has emerged from multiple sessions with Mike. Because it is based on a metaphor, it is accessible to my unconscious as well as my conscious mind.

It’s based, in part, on the Buddhist concept of “monkey mind,” a term used by Buddha to refer to the restless, fidgety activity of the conscious mind; in part, on the metaphor of the rider and the elephant, developed by researcher Jonathan Haidt and further popularized by Chip and Dan Heath; And in part, on the concept of the lizard brain, a popular name given to the limbic system.

The funny thing is that although I can reconstruct the sources rationally, the metaphor is not something that I constructed consciously. It is something that emerged from my unconscious, during guided meditation sessions with Mike.

Here’s how the metaphor forms a vivid picture that can be read and understood by the unconscious:

Imagine a monkey, riding on an elephant, who is walking down a path. Inside the elephant is a lizard.

The monkey thinks he’s in charge, but in truth the elephant pretty much goes where he wants (these characters can be male or female as you prefer). If the monkey can communicate in language the elephant understands (like vivid mental images, stories and metaphor), then the elephant will hear and understand.

The monkey talks constantly, sometimes to others, but mostly to himself, and one of the things he likes to tell himself is that he is the one who is in control. If they come to a fork and the elephant goes left, then the monkey says he definitely wanted to go left, and he gives all kinds of reasons why. If the elephant goes right, he explains how he wanted to go right. He loves the illusion of control. But it’s the elephant who decides.

The lizard is constantly scanning for threats (don’t ask me how he does this from inside an elephant, it’s a metaphor!). If he perceives a threat, he takes control of the elephant. But his controls are crude: He can only make the elephant terrified, or angry, and he really can’t control what happens after that. My lizard is a kind of chameleon: he is bright red when alert, but when he is calm he becomes a cooler, bluish gray.

I have been working on my lizard lately, trying to get him to be a little more lethargic. I grew up in a family of boys and we were pretty rough with each other, so having a hair-trigger lizard was probably a good thing in those days. But my life is different now and the lizard that worked in my youth is not the right lizard for married life. So I try to imagine my lizard getting a bit lethargic, fat, and lazy. I still want him to be there when I need him, but I don’t need him to be on red alert all the time.

Communicating with the elephant is a very slow process. It takes time. But when the messages are received the results are powerful and strong.

Calm the lizard, guide the elephant, and you can get the monkey where he wants to go.

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This metaphorical model of the mind has been working very well for me. If you decide to work on creating a better mind team, you may find they work for you, or you may discover other characters lurking in your unconscious. Discovering the menagerie in your mind is a wonderful discovery process, and part of the fun.

I am pretty sure there are a lot of other creatures to discover. For now, the monkey, the elephant and the lizard work for me. They have helped me take more control of my life and happiness. Maybe they can work for you too.

Do you want to try this too? You can. Learn more.

Dave Gray is the Founder of XPLANE and author of Selling to the VP of NO, The Connected Company and Gamestorming. His next book, Liminal Thinking, is due out later this year.

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