The Ontario Ministry of Education is using the phrase “Think, Feel, Act” to describe its strategy for introducing self-regulation into schools. I think that they are putting the cart before the horse.
Brain research tells us that the phrase should be “Feel, Think, Do” (I prefer the word “Do” to the more ambiguous “Act”).
This research shows that our brains make decisions before we even start thinking about options. I take this to mean that no matter what we do, our feelings will always be faster than our thinking. (It has become clear that the human brain has evolved to feel first, think second. Our brains retain ancient sensory and “feeling” structures that we inherited from lizards. In simplistic terms, our brains can be thought of as being made of two competing parts: the older lizard brain and the uniquely human pre-frontal cortex)
Because of this, the only option we have is whether, after feeling, we go straight to doing or we force ourselves to think before we act. We can “Feel, Do” or with practice we can “Feel, Think, Do”.
“Feel, Do” is important when you are being chased by a bear or playing in a championship basketball game. Over-thinking in these situations lead to delays that can mean death or defeat. In athletics, the arts, and creating computer programs “Feel, Do” is referred to as “being in the zone”. This state of successful intuitive action comes from thousands of hours of practicing “Feel, Think, Do” skills.
In “Thinking, Fast and Slow“, Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman details how, if used properly, both “Feel, Do, Think” and “Feel, Think, Do” are vital to our survival, and how each can cause disaster if we use the wrong one at the wrong time . (Watch hour-long Video or read a summary from Scientific American. Less detailed information on these ideas can be found in Malcolm Gladwell’s books “Blink” and “Outliers“).
With practice, the lizard brain can learn some self-regulation skills, helping you be “in the zone” throughout your day. I’m thrilled that schools around the world are beginning to bring effective self-regulation training into their classrooms, and to families of the school’s students. Working together families and teachers and coaches can help children move from “Feel, Do” to “Feel, Do, Think” and eventually to “Feel, Think, Do”.
(Self-control and compliance both try to impose “Think, Do” on children. Given how our brains are wired, these rigid rule-based strategies try to train the brain to ignore the lizard brain, but current research suggests that this may not be possible.)