We experience the world, responding to incoming stimuli. We perceive, process and react. Our responses, however, may not always be adaptive. Sometimes we efficiently respond, effortlessly reacting, moving towards goals and avoiding disasters. Other times our response is muddied with over thinking or thoughtless emotional reactions, complicating relationships and destroying goals. We thrive when we act with a wise mind.
The blending wisdom from both logical states and emotional states creates what practitioners of dialectical behavior therapy refer to as the wise mind.
In dialectical behavior therapy, a key skill taught is acting from the wise mind. The foundational concept of wise mind is that we react from different states of mind, particularly logic (reasonable mind) or emotion (emotional mind). Acting from the wise mind is drawing wisdom from both the reasonable mind and emotional mind and making better choices by reacting with inner wisdom.
T. Franklin Murphy addressed this concept in an early Flourishing Life Society article, he wrote, “the flourishing life integrates the awe of emotions with the rationality of thought. Neither emotions nor logic is better than the other. We have both and must blend them. Each offering different qualities to experience. We can’t blindly default to one or the other; but purposely shifting focus back and forth, examining the role of both emotion and logic” (2016).
Wise Mind, Reasonable Mind, Emotional Mind
To best understand wise mind, we first must understand reasonable mind and emotional mind. It is important to remember that when we discuss opposing or different functions of the brain (reasonable mind, emotional mind, wise mind) that we are not suggesting that these are geographical pin points on the brain map. These are different functions of the same brain.
Modern technology has identified different areas of the brain that are more active during different functions, such as the amygdala during heightened arousal or the prefrontal cortex during executive type functions and logical thinking. However, the brain is complex and all functions cross communicate between different regions sending and receiving information through the trillions of interconnected neurons.
In wise mind, we use the perfect balance of reasonable and emotional mind.
The reasonable mind is the mode when we use our logical functions. Mostly, this is the conscious and deliberate thought we utilize to problem solve. Therapist Greg Dorter explains “reasonable mind is our traditional thinking state of mind. It’s our practical and pragmatic, logical and rational, task-and rule-oriented way of thinking grounded in facts and reason” (2020).
Guy Claxton in his masterful book on intelligence identifies three different operating processing speeds for absorbing and responding to external data. One of the speeds he refers to his the deliberation mode (D-mode). Claxton’s D-mode is essentially DBT’s reasonable mind.
The D-mode, Claxton writes, is “the sort of intelligence which…involve(s) figuring matters out, weighing up the pros and cons, constructing arguments and solving problems” (1999, p. 2). Claxton explains that D-mode “works well when the problem it is facing is easily conceptualized” (p. 3).
Sheri van Dijk explains wrote that “when you’re in your reasoning self, you don’t usually experience emotions, and if you do, these emotions are small, not intense, and easily disregarded” (2012, p. 34).
Reasonable Mind is:
- Conscious, articulate understanding
- Explanations and plans
- Clear supporting arguments
- Purposeful problem solving
- Task oriented
- logical and rational
- Intolerant of not-knowing
- Point to point learning
Emotional mind also has many survival benefits. According to Claxton this is the fast processing speed of the brain. We react to danger and environmental threats through faster channels than the conscious, deliberate thought of the reasonable mind. Joseph Ledoux, the Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Science in the Center for Neural Science at New York University, explains that “fear feelings and pounding hearts are both effects caused by the activity of the emotional system, which does its job unconsciously—literally, actually before we know we are in danger” (1998).
When the emotional mind is aroused with intensity, the reasonable mind fails to take stage in our attention. We evolved giving emotions priority over rationality. LeDoux wrote, “there is but one mechanism of consciousness and it can be occupied by mundane facts or highly charged emotions. Emotions easily bump mundane events out of awareness” (p. 18). Emotions are an essential component of living. Murphy wrote “the experience of living is rich in ups and downs; joys and sorrows; gains and losses; excitement and dullness. Through movement of feeling, we become whole, working through struggles, and open to the momentary joys” (2016).
LeDoux beautifully endorses the emotions. He wrote that “It’s hard to imagine life without emotions. We live for them, structuring circumstances to give us moments of pleasure and joy, and avoiding situations that will lead to disappointment, sadness, or pain.” LeDoux continues “cognitive science is really only a science of part of the brain, the part having to do with thinking, reasoning, and intellect. It leaves emotions out. And minds without emotions are not really minds at all. They are souls on ice—cold lifeless creatures devoid of any desires, fears, sorrows, pains, or pleasures” (1998 pp. 23-25).
When Emotional Mind and Reasonable Mind Fail
While both emotional mind and reasonable mind have their place, moments where they serve us exceptionally well, they also can interfere. Overly analytical thought can prevent emotional wisdom from hidden stores of intuitive knowing. We over-analyze, we justify bias, we get lost in mundane facts, missing the glorious complexity.
Emotional mind can sweep us away, blocking logical thought. Emotion distorts thinking in a variety of ways. Exclusively residing in emotional mind decreases concentration, increases rumination, and gives life to hopeless and helpless thought.
Once emotions reach a heightened level of arousal, moving us beyond our normal windows of tolerance, we often collapse into frightened chaos. Our actions fail to consider long term goals, we just want to escape the pain.
Integrating Reason and Emotion to Create Wise Mind
Murphy wrote “emotions are a key element of experience, learning to integrate emotions into healthy action is essential for successful survival in this competitive world” (2018). The DBT concept of wise mind is learning to skillfully integrate emotions with logic.
Experiencing the richness of emotion without being swept away in arousal while conversely able to logically examine the facts without completely emotionally detaching from our inner worlds of feeling.
DBT teaches the concept of wise mind as a therapeutic skill to maximize skilled living.
Cedar R. Koons, a therapist, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) team leader, researcher, trainer, and consultant, wrote, “by activating the entire brain, wise mind functions as a clearinghouse where the information coming in—facts, emotions, learning from the past—can be processed more effectively. When we are in wise mind we have access to the executive functions of the PFC as well as information from the limbic system, including the old, perhaps distorted, interpretations from the hippocampus” (2016, Kindle location 623).
Wise Mind and Mindfulness
A key skill for dwelling in wise mind states is mindfulness. Koons explains that mindfulness skills “can help you find the shelter from the devastation caused by powerful, out-of-control emotions so you can ride out the storm without being harmed” (Kindle location 241).
We quickly get flooded by emotion, overwhelmed by the arousal, we narrow attention. Mindfulness skills invite calmness, allowing emotions to exist but within our window of tolerance. We don’t get swept away.
Mindfulness practices of attention also help bring buried emotions back into our lives. We can feel the emotions we defensively denied.
Linda Graham wrote that “when we feel we are under siege…, we need to call on the CEO of resilience and use body-based tools (somatic resources) to regulate the progression of worry, fear, and panic in our nervous system that could cause us to freak out or fall apart. The somatic intelligence that flows from a well-functioning prefrontal cortex allows us to stay calm, stay steady in our wise mind, and deal” (2013, p. 191).
Graham’s body based tools that ignite somatic intelligence are the same mindfulness tools utilized in DBT practices. These tools keep the balance, integrating emotion and reason, bringing us to our wise self where we can act in healthy ways, moving towards our hopes, dreams and goals. This is the wise mind state.
Claxton, Guy (1999). Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less. Ecco; Illustrated edition
Dorter, Greg (2020). DBT Skills: Wise Mind, Emotional Mind and Reasonable Mind. Published 10-20-2020. Accessed 5-28-2022
Graham, Linda (2013). Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being. New World Library; 1st edition
Koons, Cedar, R. (2016). The Mindfulness Solution for Intense Emotions: Take Control of Borderline Personality Disorder with DBT. New Harbinger Publications; 1st edition
LeDoux, Joseph (1998). The Emotional Brain : The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. Simon & Schuster.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2016). Emotions and Logic. Psychology Fanatic. Published 9-2016. Accessed 5-27-2022
Murphy, T. Franklin (2016). Feeling: The Experience of Living. Psychology Fanatic. Published 9-2016. Accessed 5-28-2022
Murphy, T. Franklin (2018) Integrating Emotion. Psychology Fanatic. Published 12-2018. Accessed 5-28-2022.
Van Dijk, Sheri (2012). Calming the Emotional Storm: Using Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills to Manage Your Emotions and Balance Your Life. New Harbinger Publications; 1st edition.