We experience life as a unified whole. Our mind smoothly blends information from diverse sources—senses, memories, and internal feelings; combining and organizing the scraps, the mind derives meaning from the chaos. When functioning well, the final story provides a useful guide for predicting futures. Wisdom is born from our well-functioning system—gathering, interpreting, and storing information for future direction. Rational thought is born from a well-functioning system, with little interruption from biases that deviate from reality.
Perhaps, irrational thinking has always plagued humans. We speed up cognitive data processing through heuristics that interpret the world as we desire to see the world. However, we pay for the efficiency gained with losses in rationality. Basically, we can act on and defend information that if seen in clarity would certainly almost make us laugh at the lunacy.
While rational thought is something we reach for, it cannot easily override all the unconscious, conditioned responses built into our biological learning mechanisms. By and large, we wouldn’t survive if we had to stop and logically process every shard of data that enters our brain. We would stall with informational overload, unable to act.
Rational Thought is reasoning by evaluating known facts, limiting influence of biases and emotional influences.
Meaning Making Machines
This story-making mind doesn’t always produce timeless wisdom. The blending of data has a few drawbacks. We easily taint rational thought through faulty meanings, leading to illogical conclusions. Feelings, quietly working beneath consciousness, also guide behavior, establishing personal connections between the self and with what is happening. Overly simplified, feeling responses remind us what we like and don’t like—I like this smell, I dislike that person. Our brain scans the environment, reacting to any stimulus that appears threatening or beneficial to our well-being and survival; no matter how subtle the threat or benefit.
For example, we may hold the belief that families and children bring happiness. This becomes a cognitive heuristic. We process the world and information from this fundamental belief. A historic painting of the Madonna with a stressed and sad look on her face as she cares for the baby Jesus then is proclaimed to be against “our family values” and banned from the school. As a very involved father of three wonderful children, and now grandfather living in proximity to four beautiful grandchildren, I know that children bring sorrows along with the joys. I have discovered a eudaimonic happiness from family. Irrational Thoughts such as mothers should be happy all the time, create a significant departure from reality.
We certainly don’t want to send young mothers and fathers into the family arena believing that a child will bring endless joy. Guilt, shame and depression may accompany the normal discomforting feelings of parenting. Rational thought requires seeing opposing facts, accepting the complexity, and forming reasonable conclusions.
Emotions and Rational Thought
This biological alarm system directs behavior to avoid possible hazards and approach promising opportunities. Instinctively we avoid walking in front of speeding cars and giving out too much personal information. The built-in warning system isn’t completely functional at birth. The hardware needs valuable input, slowly evolving—becoming more refined or grossly distorted. Our rational mind’s story making ability becomes part of the learning, deriving meaning from evaluation of complex mixtures of experience, subjectively defining benefits and dangers. Achieving an accurate thought representation of reality is helpful—overly distorted is not.
Reid Hastie and Robyn M. Dawes warn that not all irrational beliefs are protected by cognitive heuristics alone. We also may organize our lives to prevent interfering information. they wrote “perfectly rational thought processes do not guarantee true conclusions. It is necessary to have realistic, valid inputs, too” (2009, Kindle location 3,857).
High Arousal and Shifting Thinking Modes
Emotions have an odd relationship with rationality. We need emotions to process the millions of scraps of information thrown at us in each moment. Emotions help filter the important and unimportant. We can still pause, reflect, and gain deeper insight. In Dialectic Behavioral Therapy they refer to this as wise mind. However, when emotions overload, arousing beyond our window of tolerance, we suppress rational thought, relying on default emergency modes. Perhaps, this is why politicians love to arouse fear and anger, to shut down our rational thoughts to the bull @#%% they are about to feed us.
Daniel J. Siegel, a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the School of Medicine of the University of California, Los Angeles, explains that during significant arousal “the ‘higher’ cognitive functions of abstract thinking and self-reflection are shut down. The prefrontal circuits linking these cortical processes with the highly discharging limbic centers are functionally blocked, and rational thought becomes impossible. In states of mind beyond the window of tolerance, the pre-frontally mediated capacity for response flexibility is temporarily shut down.” He summarizes, “The ‘higher mode’ of integrative processing has been replaced by a ‘lower mode’ of reflexive responding” (2020, location 6,435).
Childhoods and Rational Thought
Life can be chaotic. Children raised in homes and communities brimming with unpredictable danger struggle to establish helpful correlations. When threats to survival disrupt the security of childhood, the mind becomes disorganized, adapting survival styles that limit growth as adults.
Our cognitive powers attempt to gather meaningful information, identifying correlations between actions and consequence. When environments are chaotic, the chaos confuses correlations. From disrupted pasts, confusion arises. The mind misinterprets important messages, creating maladaptive impulses to act in ways that damage futures.
Beliefs and Emotion
A misguided belief or bias ignites feelings of fear, anger, sadness or even a joy that isn’t appropriate for the circumstances. These misinterpretations are not isolated in the head, dissipating with time, but create impulses for action and words that further the distortion, leading us away from the life we desire. We can’t resolve this dilemma by ignoring our impulses. Accordingly, we say things, support causes, and defend stupidities never even bothering to skeptically examine through rational thought.
Self-righteousness, either through religious affiliation or belief of belonging to a superior political party, “provide a recipe for self-deception, removing nearly all restraints from rational thought” (Trivers, 2011, location 4,521). Once a group adopts what they hold as a “universal system of truth” belonging to the group gives the members a sense of specialness. We permit the dogma of the group “to supersede reason.” Under these conditions a group that labels themselves kind, family oriented, and virtuous can behave unkind, destructive to family units and unvirtuous. Basically, their thoughts and behaviors mismatch professing irrationality.
Whether we acknowledge the existence of bias or not, they still spur action. By pretending we are above feeling affect, we simply miss the point. Those who drape action in adorning words of logic, often are the most blind to the underlying emotional pushes and pulls. Ignoring feelings because of their fallibility puts us in greater danger, alienating us from mindful acknowledgement of misguided and destructive behaviors.
Mindfulness and Rational Thought
As we grow, gathering diverse experiences, thoughtful reflection on emotions invites expanded understanding. Reflection exposes hidden emotions and the connected habitual reactions. From a mindful position of knowledge, we can identify and adjust errant behavior. With mindfulness, we take a giant step closer to reality.
With a healthy partnership between the rational-story-telling mind and the flowing emotions, we become wiser, blending two rich sources of information that direct us toward a better life. Without careful observations, we drift from the well-lighted streets of rational thought and disappear in the dark diverse paths of habit and bias; we flounder instead of flourish. Fine tuning the skills of reflection and integration is a process that we never perfect. The liveliness of existence is not static. Much like a garden—our neglected mind quickly deteriorates.
Live life, feel it, examine the thoughts experience generates and the stories created that give meaning to the morass. Slow down to question and skeptically examine these coherent stories for correctness, gently redirecting when they drift from reality and push us away from our dreams.
Hastie, Reid; Dawes Robyn M. (2009). Rational Choice in an Uncertain World: The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making. SAGE Publications, Inc; Second edition
Siegel, Daniel J. (2020). The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. The Guilford Press; Third edition.
Trivers, Robert (2011). The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life. Basic Books; 1st edition