Feeding the Voices Within Us

From a David Barash piece in the New York Times (Are We Hard-Wired for War?):

“There is a story, believed to be of Cherokee origin, in which a girl is troubled by a recurring dream in which two wolves fight viciously. Seeking an explanation, she goes to her grandfather, highly regarded for his wisdom, who explains that there are two forces within each of us, struggling for supremacy, one embodying peace and the other, war. At this, the girl is even more distressed, and asks her grandfather who wins. His answer: “The one you feed.”

I like the story and the premise, that we may have multiple internal forces or ‘voices,’ but that there is also some executive decision maker within us that can choose which ones to nurture and cultivate. However, circumstances also play a large role — socialization, perceptions of injustice, fear of insecurity, relationships with our neighbors — in which voices we listen to. The rational executive is not always in complete control; instead, it’s a complex dialogue. As Jaak Panskepp once wrote:

Despite the appeal of (the) rational fallacy, our higher brain areas are not immune to the subcortical influences we share with other creatures. Of course, the interchange between cognitive and emotional processes is one of reciprocal control, but the flow of traffic remains balanced only in nonstressful circumstances. In emotional turmoil, the upward influences of subcortical emotional circuits on the higher reaches of the brain are stronger than top-down controls. Although humans can strengthen and empower the downward controls through emotional education and self-mastery, few can ride the whirlwind of unbridled emotions with great skill.” (Panksepp, 2004: 301)


Who’s in charge here?







Panksepp J. 2004. Affective Neuroscience: the Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. Oxford Univ Press.


Related: Tradeoffs, Happiness, & the Biology of Our Cacophonous Selves

8 thoughts on “Feeding the Voices Within Us

  1. I’m not sure what is more creepy, the loud voice of something outside in charge, or the quiet voice of the executive decision maker within each of us (but presumably either put there or nurtured). The coexistence of both is hardly reassuring. The question remains: if ‘control’ of ‘me’ is outside, or inside, or outside and inside in combination, what is ‘me’?

  2. Yes, it’s a sad thing when our ‘inner committees,’ if you will, when we’re under stress, seem to view the rational self’s ideas as purely theoretical, and so often our best selves are marginalized in the debates. Like philosophy is somehow not real, not applicable in real, difficult life.

  3. In another vein, you’re touching on something I’ve been obsessing about a little lately, I’ve gotten a little too involved in this Twitterstorm about Bill Maher and Sam Harris’ argument with Ben Affleck, and Maher’s general attitude about religion and more particularly, Islam, and I am starting to see a general sort of limitation in how many folks view the west’s conflict with Islamists. Maybe it’s because there’s a threat, and in different terms but as Panskepp suggested, the amygdala gains power in our internal debates . . .

  4. Speaking of voices, I think it’s time that we al learned that this two wolves story is not of Cherokee or any indigenous peoples’ of America origin. This story does come up often. The first time I heard it was through a friend who also said it was from a Native American oral tradition. The second time I heard it was this year at a training (described as a story from Cherokee origin), and I would have continued believing in its origin if not for an individual who had worked at a library. This story first appeared in a Billy Graham book. (“This story seems to have begun in 1978 when a early form of it was written by the Evangelical Christian Minister Billy Graham in his book, ‘The Holy Spirit: Activating God’s Power in Your Life.'”) Talk about “voices,” dialogue, and whose in charge, right? Here’s a blog entry dedicated to this story alone: http://apihtawikosisan.com/2012/02/check-the-tag-on-that-indian-story/

    • Hi Jay,

      You may be right. I didn’t check the origin of the story, but only quoted it from Barash, so it could be apocryphal. If true, it is problematic to try to set up a parable as coming from the wisdom of a culture other than one’s own. It’s also problematic scholarship, and a game of academic ‘telephone,’ where people just keep recycling an idea without verifying it.

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