The Rational Rider and Emotional Horse: Finding Balance

August 29, 2018

The brain is symbolically divided into two hemispheres. The right side is the “emotional” or “intuitive” hemisphere and the left is the “rational” side. Achieving balance, and therefore well-being, is determined by the relationship between those opposing sides.

Philosophically speaking, the emotional center is the most ancient area of the brain. Nevertheless, it’s the newest area, the logical and rational neocortex, that lets us carry out sophisticated mental tasks.

Emotion and reason aren’t opposing forces, as emotions are the basis of reasoning and help us judge our experiences. Neuroscientist Paul MacLean compares the relationship between the rational and emotional sides of our brain with the relationship between a competent rider (experienced and logical) and his horse (strong and instinctive).

Personal balance is determined by the relationship between the emotional and rational sides of your mind.

Illustration of the mind's emotional and rational sides.

Finding personal balance

The word balance comes from Latin aequilibrĭum, composed of aequus meaning ‘equal’ and libra meaning ‘balancing’. We all see balance in qualities such as harmony, equality, restraint, wisdom, sanity and, of course, in people who enjoy good mental health.

When your emotional brain and rational brain are in balance, you have a clear view of yourself and your situation. For example, in a survival situation, both systems (emotional an rational) would be able to operate independently, but harmoniously.

The emotional side would give you the energy to take immediate action (for example, holding on to a railing or a ledge if you fall off a cliff). But it’s the rational side that would think of what to do next (so you’re not dangling from a cliff forever).

Personal balance determines your well-being

The rider and the horse

A skilled rider has to learn to control their horse if they want to ride it. Controlling the horse is easiest for the rider on an obstacle-free path and during good weather. But, if something unexpected happens, such as a loud noise or a threatening animal encounter, the horse will bolt. The rider will have to hold on tight, keep their balance, and gently calm the horse down.

A similar phenomenon occurs when someone experiences a life-threatening situation, terror, or even sexual desire. These types of situations make it much harder to stay in control. This is because, when the limbic system detects an intense situation and decides there’s a threat, it begins to lose its connection to the rational system (frontal lobes).

Managing the rational and emotional requires balance, much like riding a horse.

Therefore, neuroscientific research shows that poor comprehension doesn’t cause most psychological problems. But stressed attention and perception areas of the brain do. It’s very difficult to ponder advanced logical ideas when your emotional brain is on red alert and only focuses on perceived dangers.

But what happens if the rider can’t control the horse?

Sometimes you get angry with someone you love or fear something you must do. This leads to an internal struggle. Your “gut” and brain begin a battle that rarely feels good, regardless of the winner.

If the horseman (rational brain) and horse (emotional brain) disagree, who wins?  Initially, you might say that the powerful horse would win. Actually, that’s most likely to happen, at least before the brain is completely developed. Which, according to scientific studies, happens around the age of 21. Before that, the prefrontal lobe still hasn’t finished developing. Unless you’ve developed skills to compensate for that weakness, it’s the underdog in the fight against the limbic system’s energy.

Once the brain has completed its development (or almost completed, as it never stops changing), it’s much easier for someone to control their instinctive and emotional side. Of course, the experience and skills gained in life’s ups and downs are a great help. These two tools, experience and emotional intelligence, are what help you take control of your thoughts and emotions and rein in your emotional brain. Letting it free might wreak havoc on your life.

“Follow your heart but take your brain with you.”

-Alfred Adler-

Illustration of a mind and a heart.


Van der Kolk, B. A. (1994). The body keeps the score: Memory and the evolving psychobiology of posttraumatic stress. Harvard review of psychiatry, 1(5), 253-265.