decisionesImagine that you open an email, and after reading only a couple of lines you already start to feel irritated. As you keep on reading, your irritation gives way to anger. You end up getting so worked up that, armed with your keyboard and your mouse, you roll up your sleeves and set about answering in a far from diplomatic tone… As soon as you click on the ‘send’ button, an ever-so-small thought occurs to you: ’Perhaps I shouldn’t have sent that email.’ If this has ever happened to you, you can rest assured that you’re in good company. We are all sometimes prey to emotions which get the better of us. The reason for this lies in our brains.

Back in the 1960s Paul McLean, an American scientist, advanced a theory to explain how our dear little brain works. To keep things simple, we can say that we have three interconnected neural systems which are the result of how we have evolved. The oldest of these is the reptilian or the brain stem. This triggers certain aggressive patterns of behaviour, such as when we feel threatened; it also underlines our basic sexual instincts. As the name suggests, we share this neural system with reptiles.

The second neural system, the limbic, resides in the amygdala and is common to all mammals. This system is responsible for the production of basic emotions such as anger, fear, happiness or sadness.

The third and last neural system is the neocortex, and it is this which sets us apart from all other animals. Thanks to the neocortex, we are able to do such things as paint or exercise critical thinking. According to Paul McLean, the neocortex does not act in isolation as a ‘lone ranger’. Rather, it works in conjunction with the rest of the brain, and especially with the amygdala. It’s a good thing that our brain operates along these lines. Otherwise, mothers would feel no emotional attachment to their children. The offspring of animals with no neocortex, such as snakes, have to hide from their mothers in order to avoid being devoured. However, our cerebral system does have its drawbacks: the amygdala can short-circuit our ability to think rationally.

Although more recent research has shown the theory of the triune brain to be incomplete, there is no doubt that it offers an interesting insight: when we are prey to very intense emotions, we don’t always think rationally, as in the case of answering an email when we are angry. In situations like this, our ‘second brain, the limbic, takes over. The reason for this lies in how we have evolved. If in the distant past we suddenly saw a mammoth running towards us, in order to survive we didn’t need to think, but to act… in other words, to leg it. However, if the problem is an email, acting on the spur of the moment is not so advisable. But this is the price we pay for a brain which was nurtured for centuries in caves. As Rita Levi-Montalcini, the 1986 Nobel Prize winner for Medicine, said:

We live in the past, as we did 50,000 years ago, dominated by passions and base impulses. We are not controlled by reason, but by emotion.

In the light of this reality, let’s see what we can do about it:


Be aware of when your emotions are getting the better of you (happiness, sadness, fear or anger) and sound an inner alarm.

When you are very angry, follow the time-honoured advice: count to ten, go for a walk or sleep on it. Whatever you do, give the emotion time to subside.

If you have to take a decision while in an intense emotional state, try to induce the opposite emotion: if you are very angry, think about something nice; if you are euphoric, focus on something that calms you down.


Cooling down our emotions is a good way to avoid taking ill-advised decisions.

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