Angels, Devils, and Brain Anatomy

The main character of your favorite cartoon is contemplating a decision. As he deliberates, a small version of himself appears on each shoulder, one dressed as an angel and the other dressed as a devil- horns, tail and pitchfork. The angel tries to encourage him to do the “right” thing, while the devil tempts him to do the “wrong” thing. The two apparitions vie for the character’s attention until one of them wins as the cartoon finally decides to act. Does that sound familiar?

Although seemingly farfetched, this scene may play out hundreds of times each day within you. Interestingly, neuroscience has now identified which parts of your brain are engaged in this struggle. The “angel” telling us to do what we believe is “right,” that is, aligned with our personal belief system, is your prefrontal cortex, located just behind your forehead. The “devil,” dominated by potent emotions, wanting a feel-good quick-fix even at the expense of your personal belief system, is the limbic area, located in the center of your brain.

You can likely make a decision that you will feel good about long afterward when you “listen” to the prefrontal cortex. But ultimately, becoming the person that you want to be involves getting the prefrontal cortex and limbic area of your brain to unite. A first step in this process is simply beginning to take note of the times throughout the day when you catch these two versions of yourself locked in a battle over which gets to make a particular decision. After all, if an issue is important enough for these two areas of your brain to be at odds, it’s very likely to be a decision that will affect the person you become in the future.

In the areas of your life that will affect your fitness, when do you catch the “angel” and the “devil” arguing?

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