Before we think, we feel
The Ontario Ministry of Education is using the phrase “Think, Feel, Act” as part of its strategy for introducing self-regulation into schools. But our brains don’t work this way.
The phrase should be “Feel, Think, Do”.
Feelings are faster than thinking and they are only concerned about the present. They emerge from old parts of the brain that we share with lizards and fish, parts that don’t have the ability to predict the future. Thinking comes from parts of the brain that only humans have, parts that have been tacked onto the older lizard parts. The thinking brain is slow, but with practice it can be pretty good at predicting the future. The best that it can do is to stop feeling from going straight to acting, to slow the process down, so that the consequences of our actions are go for us.
Brain research shows that our brains can make decisions before we even start thinking about options. It seems that no matter what we do, our “gut” feelings/instincts will always be faster than our thinking. Bizarrely, it is clear that parts of our “thinking” brains insist on concocting completely made-up “reasons” for taking an action that it had no part in choosing.
Because of the way our brains are wired the only option we have is whether, after “feeling”, we go straight to “doing” or we train ourselves to give “thinking” a chance to get in between. Infants come out of the womb ready to “Feel, Do”. The goal is that as we grow and mature, we learn to “Feel, Think, Do”.
We learn to “Feel, Think, Do” by first learning to “Feel, Do, Think”, gradually strengthening the “thinking” parts of our brain until they can get in between “Feel” and “Do” whenever needed.
But there is always a place and time for “Feel, 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 often referred to as “being in the zone”. This state of successful intuitive action usually comes from thousands of hours of practicing “Feel, Think, Do, Think” and “Feel, Do, Think” or even “Feel, Think” . Ending with “Think” makes “Feel” more accurate, “Do” more skilled, and “Think” more powerful and effective. This is how we learn a new skill. If we do this often enough, the “Do” seeps into our habit-based “Feel” (including muscle memory), allowing seemingly effortless acts of skill and creativity.
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 fast emotional parts of our brain can learn some self-regulation skills, helping a person to be “in the zone” throughout a game or the whole day. Schools around the world are beginning to bring 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 our primitive “lizard” brain, something that is possible to do only at the cost of emotional well-being.)