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Are You Rational or Emotional? Wise Mind Requires Both

Is it better to be rational or emotional? Psychologists (and Albert Einstein) believe that true wisdom requires you to tap into both. Discover how your wise mind integrates emotion and reason, and learn how to activate it in your daily life.

By
Jade Wu, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #297
emotional and rational
The Quick And Dirty
  • Emotional mind is hot, feelings-focused, intense, and more volatile. It's great for sparking inspiration, highlighting important values, and fueling actions. 
  • Rational mind is cool, task- and logic-focused, and pragmatic. It's great for making careful decisions, analyzing facts, and getting through a crisis. 
  • Wise mind is an integration of both emotional and rational minds. It acknowledges the role of emotion in pointing out what's important and uses reasoning to implement effective actions. It's intuitive, grounded, and mindful. 
  • Activate your wise mind by paying attention to both emotions and reasoning, taking your time to integrate them. 

Sherlock Holmes, the genius detective created by author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, once said this about emotions:

But love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things.

Another famously smart character, Mr. Spock, First Officer on the Starship Enterprise, had similar feelings towards feelings:

May I say that I have not thoroughly enjoyed serving with Humans? I find their illogic and foolish emotions a constant irritant.

Holmes and Spock declared emotions as foolish, frivolous things that cloud judgment and mess up the quest for truth.

On the other hand, real-life genius Albert Einstein took a kinder view of emotions:

Feeling and longing are the motive forces behind all human endeavor and human creations.

And Helen Keller, in true poetic form, said:

The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.

So, who's right? Is it better to be rational or emotional?

What if the answer is “both”?

Your “wise mind” is the intersection of your rational and emotional minds that allows you to make the most grounded, useful, and fulfilling life choices.

Today, we borrow again from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of the University of Washington and founder of the Linehan Institute. We will learn a skill for using your “wise mind,” the intersection of your rational and emotional minds that allows you to make the most grounded, useful, and fulfilling life choices.

Let’s start by looking at each of rational and emotional mind by themselves:

What is your rational mind?

Your rational mind is cool. It is logical, methodical, pragmatic. It operates based on facts, and it’s task-focused.

When you’re in your rational mind, you respond to reason. Values are not necessarily in focus right now, and emotions are not in play. This is a very useful state to be in during a crisis moment that requires you to stay narrowly focused and cool-headed. For example, if you’re defusing a bomb, it’s a good time to be in a rational mind state. The rational mind is also useful in many other situations, like when a scientist interprets data, a lawyer reviews a contract, or a parent considers a painful but life-saving treatment for their child.

This is a very useful state to be in during a crisis moment that requires you to stay narrowly focused and cool-headed.

What might the rational mind be missing out on? Always being in rational mind can get boring. It’s hard to feel inspired, passionate, creative, infatuated, and joyful when you are always in a rational mindset. It’s also hard to feel the difficult but necessary emotions we need to live a rich, fulfilling life—like grief for the things we cherish and lose, tenderness for the things we want to nurture, and anger at the things that are unjust.

With only rational mind, we probably wouldn’t have social change, puppy love, spontaneous road trips, leaps of faith toward more meaningful relationships or career paths, and other things that make life rich and colorful.

What is your emotional mind?

Your emotional mind is hot. It’s passionate, impulsive, reactive.

When you’re in emotional mind, you respond to your gut feelings and moods. Logic and reason are not in focus, and you’re not necessarily taking time to evaluate facts and balance evidence. This is a good state of mind for spontaneous creativity, like when listening to awesome music makes you feel inspired to sign up for guitar lessons. Your emotional mind is also good for getting yourself motivated to act, like when you see injustice in the world that brings you out to march in protest.

Your emotional mind is good for getting yourself motivated to act, like when you see injustice in the world that brings you out to march in protest.

Emotional mind makes you take risks or explore uncharted territory—always wanted to live in a different country, or start a business? It might not be the most rational choice because staying at home in your day job is less financially risky, but emotional mind, for better or worse, might give you the nudge needed to take that leap of faith.

But if we only had emotional mind, we would be exhausted following all the excited, erratic, and ever-changing whims it comes up with. It can also be exhausting for those around us to keep up. It can lead to taking more risks than is good for us, or we might get so carried away with ideas that we lose sight of facts. It’s hard to have a stable life with long-lasting relationships if we’re all emotion and no reason.

What is your wise mind?

Your wise mind is grounded, intuitive, and balanced. It integrates the best of both worlds—it’s rational and emotional. It rightfully respects emotion as a driving force towards values and rightfully respects reason as the method for implementing values.

For example, when you meet someone incredible, your wise mind allows giddiness and infatuation, which drive you to try to spend more time with this person. Your wise mind also reminds you not to be blind to red flags, and maybe not to move in together immediately.

Your wise mind rightfully respects emotion as a driving force towards values and rightfully respects reason as the method for implementing values.

And when you witness injustice, your wise mind acknowledges your hot anger, which tells you that this is important and you want to do something about it. Your wise mind then uses cool reasoning to make sure you understand all the facts, and then to figure out the most effective way to help. 

In any situation, your wise mind’s job is to find balance and integration between your emotional and rational minds. This doesn’t mean always compromising exactly 50-50. It means mindfully choosing components from emotion and reason depending on the situation. If you’re writing a passionate love song, your wise mind knows to draw unabashedly from your emotional mind. If you’re about to sign up for a 30-year mortgage, your wise mind would probably give your rational mind more time.

How do you activate your wise mind?

Cultivating your own wise mind takes practice, and it’s more of a lifelong pursuit rather than a to-do item to be crossed off your self-improvement checklist. I recommend starting with these steps:

  • Be mindful and accepting of your emotions. Treat your emotions as colors that your brain uses to illustrate the graphic novel of your life. There are no “wrong” colors. They simply convey moods and meanings, drawing your attention to important parts. Let the emotions flow, and pay attention to what they’re trying to tell you.
     
  • Take longer than you think you need to interpret, react, praise, judge, condemn, trust, love. Your emotional mind can do those things in a split second, but they may benefit from slower input from your rational mind. For example, if you find yourself reacting very strongly to a political debate, listen to your emotional mind first, and then invite your rational mind to try out the other perspective, too, before you land on a position.
     
  • Frequently remind yourself that you have a wise mind. This reminder is like a bat signal—simply bringing it up can call your wise mind to the rescue. Trust your wise mind, but often reflect on its work so you can stay mindful and open.

Even though we often think of artists as emotional and scientists as rational, a truly wise person develops intuition by tapping into both emotions and reason. I can’t help but bring back Einstein, the best-known scientist of the modern era, who so wisely gave credit to this intuition in the advancement of Truth:

There is no logical way to the discovery of these elemental laws. There is only the way of intuition, which is helped by a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance.

Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Jade Wu, PhD

Dr. Jade Wu is a licensed clinical psychologist. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University and completed a clinical residency and fellowship at Duke University School of Medicine. Do you have a psychology question? Call the Savvy Psychologist listener line at 919-533-9122. Your question could be featured on the show. 

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