Intellect and/or emotion?
How to make smart decisions

There are two systems in the human brain that evaluate our intentions and determine our reactions regarding to whether or how we perform it. Both systems are located at different levels of our brain.

One system is our conscious mind located in the cerebral cortex (the cortical level): It evaluates “right/wrong” according to the logical criteria and it needs time to grasp and judge a situation. This process is commonly referred to as “head decisions”. In addition, we have our unconscious system (subcortical level) below the cerebral cortex in the limbic system: It evaluates according to the hedonistic criteria “like/don’t like” and it reacts within 200 milliseconds, much faster than the mind. Neurobiologist Gerhard Roth refers to this area of the limbic system as the “emotional memory of experience.” This is based on conditioning processes and starts working prenatally in the uterus. The cortical system, on the other hand, as the carrier of the conscious mind, does not mature until after birth, and this maturing process is not completed until the end of puberty. Everything that happens to the organism throughout its lifetime is stored in the emotional memory of experience. Knowledge is stored there in form of feelings and physical sensations.

The unconscious system sends its evaluation accordingly in the form of diffuse body signals, so-called somatic markers, the scientific term for what is commonly called “gut feeling”. Thus, there are two systems that work in parallel and give their evaluations. In the context of action control, there are three options of interplay between mind and subconcious: self-control, impulsivity and self-regulation.

Self-control means, the mind “suppresses” the unconscious and tries to control the action so that the mind’s evaluation is implemented.

If, for example, you shudder with fear at the mere thought of a root canal treatment, but you pull yourself together and march off to the dentist anyway, you overcome the escape impulses of the unconscious with the power of your mind. Self-control can also be used to stop the unconscious from doing something unreasonable (lighting a cigarette when you want to quit smoking) or to do something reasonable that the unconscious doesn’t feel like doing (going for a 30-minute jog in the morning before work, even though you would rather stay in bed).

By excercising self-control, as already mentioned, the mind inhibits the unconscious impulses to act. This is extremely exhausting and energy consuming. The mind needs optimal working conditions for this process. Under the following disturbing conditions the mind is not able to work properly and self-control breaks down sooner or later: Stress, having a lot on your mind, having to pay attention to several things at the same time, being over- or underchallenged, strong emotions (like fear, worry, anger, rage, but also euphoria), strong stimulus overload (like distraction, seduction to alternative actions), a lack of satisfaction of basic physical and psychological needs (like lack of sleep, hunger, thirst, sunlight, appreciation, not enough recognition in the current life situation, not enough friends and relationships, a lack of freedom).

If you let these disruptive conditions affect you, you might ask yourself, if there will ever be a time in everyday life where not at least one of these disruptive conditions occur? For 99 percent of the people, the honest answer will be: “Never!” Therefore, obviously, self-control is completely unsuitable for implementing intentions that are unwanted by the unconscious.

Self-control is a promising tool for occasional short-term measures that need to be accomplished: The previously mentioned visit to the dentist, the colonoscopy as part of cancer screening, or writing down the minutes of a meeting. For such one-time actions, the mind’s power of control is quite sufficient. But, whatever has to be implemented in everyday life over a longer period of time is jeopardized from the start with most humans, if they purely rely on self-control. In addition, after a few failed attempts, self-esteem sinks further and further: You will feel weak-willed which leads to psychological and physical stress. If operated in excess, like a kind of “inner dictatorship”, self-control has clearly negative effects. If only the mind determines the behaviour against the emotion, you run a great risk of becoming mentally ill.

The second type of motion that can produce actions is impulsivity. Here the subconscious is in command. If a young man loses his temper in a bar and he hits his opponent and breaks his nose, he has acted out of impulsivity. In most actions we regret in retrospect, the subconscious has asserted itself uncontrollably and has gotten us into trouble that often could have been avoided. Why does the subconscious sometimes cause mischief when it is not restrained? It is due to the time horizon of the unconscious, which is focused exclusively to the here and now. A choleric person, for example, cannot control his spontaneous feelings and emotions; he acts in the heat of the moment. He may feel better shortly after an outburst – but this loss of control can cause considerable damage. In extreme cases, impulsivity can be a medical condition.

Impulsivity has nothing to do with “gut feeling”, another behaviour pattern that is not dominated by the mind. But to make decisions relying on your gut feeling only, you have to be an expert in the field in which action is to be taken. Only then the unconscious, which refers to the memory of experience for evaluation, has sufficient data for spontaneous decisions that will also stand up to later scrutiny by the mind. A physician with 20 years of experience in an emergency room can rely on his spontaneous gut feeling. A young doctor, fresh out of university, should better not rely on his intuition. To be on the safe side, he should rather quickly ask Head Nurse Nancy before making a decision, because his unconscious still lacks the basis of experience.

Both variants of the interaction between mind and unconscious mentioned so far are to be treated with caution, because they have some disadvantages.

The optimal cooperation of both systems is a third option, called self-regulation. In this case, the mind and the subconscious come to the same evaluation which leads to a psychological well-being. If someone resolves to go jogging every morning for 30 minutes before work and is looking forward to his run every morning, it is a case of self-regulation.

The Zurich Resource Model (ZRM) works with self-regulation. The ZRM, developed by Dr. Maja Storch and Dr. Frank Krause at the University of Zurich, is a multiply tested and scientifically substantiated method for the systematic development of action potentials, which is consistently oriented towards individual resources. Here, the mind and the unconscious are aligned in several feedback loops (“inner democracy”). Neither system is “suppressed” or “overrun” by the other. Both are synchronized to focus on one and the same target. Using “mind” and “unconscious” with care, it is possible to develop efficient targets and to achieve them in a self-determined way. A good self-management is the ideal prerequisite for mental and physical well-being.

Decisions need to be thought through reasonably as well as reflected emotionally. A wise decision is made when the analysis of the mind takes both systems into consideration, the conscious evaluations as well as the unconscious emotional experience memory, and comes up with a matching result.

The training with the ZRM views itself as psychoeducation, helping people to help themselves. It will make you act more and more often in the way you really want to act.

I am very pleased to be able to offer you the Zurich Resource Model in my practice.