Cerebral and visceral reactions

When presented with news and other information, we have both visceral and cerebral responses. The visceral comes from the emotional reaction and occurs immediately and almost spontaneously while the cerebral response arises from our intellectual reaction involving conscious thought and takes a while to kick in.

This runs parallel to what Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes as System 1 and System 2 thinking in his influential 2011 book Thinking Fast and Slow that I discussed recently. He says that two different parts of our brains govern the two systems that he describes this way (p. 20): “System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control” while “System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.”

This distinction is particularly relevant in the case of hot-button issues that I label as GRAGGS (guns, race, abortion, gays, god, and sex). In those cases, the relative weightage that the cerebral and visceral play in our response will often depend on our personal history. The more one can see oneself in that situation, the stronger one’s visceral reaction is likely to be.

For example, recently I posted an item about a horrific act of cruelty done to a kitten. I think that almost everyone would have thought that such an act was wrong and inexcusable and that the perpetrator should be punished. But I suspect that those readers who have pets of their own would have had an even a stronger visceral component to their reaction. Why? Because they can immediately envisage how they would feel if that had happened to their own pets.

I myself am extremely fond of my dog and if anyone had done anything like that to him, I would have been in a state of blinding rage. This caused me to have such a visceral reaction to that story that I could almost taste the bile and could not bring myself to view the photos or the videos. One commenter said that she cried when she saw the photos and asked me to put a warning to others, which I did. And yet, I can understand those who feel that while the action was terribly wrong, yet did not react anywhere near as strongly as the two of us did. Pet owners who have lost a pet can often tell from the reactions of others to this news whether they too have pets or not. Everyone is sympathetic but with other pet owners, you can sense that they feel a sense of grief too, almost as if they had lost their own pet or are recalling what they felt at a time when they too suffered a similar loss.

Sometime ago, I posted an appreciation of that excellent TV comedy series Barney Miller that ran from 1975 to 1982. I showed a short clip that illustrates the point I am making in this post. I suggest that you watch it first before reading on.

How did you react to that clip?

I saw it as nicely illustrating, with the gentle humor that characterized that show, the difference between cerebral (‘understanding’) and visceral (‘feeling’) reactions to the same stimulus. But then, I am not black. If I were, I might well have gagged on Miller setting up the scene by telling Wojo about Harris having a ‘special problem’ in that he is black. This is because African-Americans have long suffered because of the attitudes of some that they are a ‘problem’ in American society. Not being black, my visceral reaction is not that strong and I can take a cerebral approach and allow time for my System 2 to operate and explain it away as an unfortunate choice of words that should not disqualify an otherwise worthy attempt to make the important distinction between understanding and feeling, and the importance of understanding how other people can react quite differently from us to the same situation.

But though I cannot feel that same sense of anger, I can understand how a black person could get so angry at the impression being given that being black is a problem that he or she cannot get beyond it. So ironically the important message of a piece that tries to distinguish between the cerebral (understanding) and the visceral (feeling) could get lost because the visceral occurs immediately and dominates the cerebral.

We are all susceptible to this. So what can be done about it? As a psychologist colleague of mine puts it, when confronted with a hot situation, we need to learn to ‘slow things down’. We need to be aware of this difference in cerebral and visceral reactions and realize that people whose personal histories are different from ours have different hot buttons from our own and what makes us really angry may not move them as much and vice versa, though we might both agree on what is right and what is wrong. In other words, we need to be conscious of the need to give time to let our System 2 operate.

Our personal life history only gives us an awareness of our own visceral reactions, not those of others. Over time, one learns what triggers strong visceral reactions in other people but it is inevitable that one will learn some things the hard way, by triggering an angry reaction inadvertently. When during a heated argument one person says to another “You just don’t understand!”, the cause of the complaint is often misplaced. The other person may well understand. The more accurate criticism would be “You just don’t feel!” What we need to realize is that they cannot feel as we do. The best we can hope for is that they understand.

There is no sense is responding to visceral responses with your own visceral response. Doing so might be emotionally satisfying in the short run, or exhilarating, perhaps even enjoyable to people who like letting loose with angry tirades, but does not really help the situation. One simply has to realize that people are reacting to the situation with different parts of the brain, put it down to a learning experience, and move on.


  1. AsqJames says

    I’ve read about system 1 & 2 thinking before, but for some reason reading this piece made me think about how modern politicians and media present issues (and particularly the “GRAGGS” issues you list). It seems to me that more and more politics, and media coverage of politics, is designed to evoke a visceral reaction which will swamp and override any attempt at system 2 cerebral analysis.

    Whether this is a deliberate strategy (by some or all) or the result of media advisors explaining that this is what works best in terms of getting votes/ratings I don’t know. I suspect mostly the latter, but when I think of things like the Texas GOP platform denouncing higher order thinking skills (HOTS) I do wonder.

    If this (more and more appeal to system 1) is happening (which I think it is) and we think it’s an impediment to good policy, politics and government (and again I think it is), how do we think it can be reversed or mitigated?


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