Which One Comes First, Thoughts or Emotions?

One of the toughest things that I realised while trying to decipher the human mind was how tough it was for us to effectively identify causation and effect. While most people seem to believe that thoughts come before emotions – I had people who told me “because I think the guy is a jerk, therefore I felt unsafe around him” – I had discovered that thoughts tend to be an explanation, rationalisation or expansion for emotions rather than the source or cause of emotions.

Physical Reason

From neurological research, the sensory input always goes through the emotional centres of the brain before it reaches the frontal cortex – the place for our rational thought. With that understanding, one must realise it is actually physically impossible for thought to come before emotions.

Our subconscious mind would often take our sensory input and sends it to the unconscious, where the unconscious will match it with similar previous memories to pull up the emotions associated with the input. Like how certain scents remind you of your mother/wife/girlfriend etc, or a photo triggers a memory of an event, these are all pulled out from your memories. Psychologists call these emotion-linked memories flashbulb memories.

Emotions are the memory system’s way of organising information. When memories get solidified and saved into our unconscious, it is stored with the memories and patterns that we observed from those experiences. That is why it is easier to remember associated events when we feel a particular emotion.

What Are Emotions?

We’ve been talking about emotions for a while and actually haven’t defined it, which would further confuse you if we don’t address it now. Allow me to define emotions as a group of reactions that our unconscious mind creates and uses to try to communicate with the rest of the mind about what it notices. These could come in the form of an activation of your happiness, love, fear or anger neurological pathways. Emotions could come in the form of a physical feeling in your body, it could come in the form of a visualisation or audiation of what you can foresee.

Our commonplace definition of emotions is often that of “feelings” which we would portray physically or verbally. However, if we redefine unconscious reactions as “instinct”, of which “feelings” are a subset, it’ll open up a lot more aspects of emotions. Emotions are often paired with instinctive reactions. For example, if a ball were to fly right at you, your emotional reaction of fear would make you dodge or run away, while an emotional reaction of excitement would help you predict the flight path of the ball so that you could catch it.

Of course, these are overly simple ways of looking at it, but your unconscious, which creates these emotions, is simply trying to communicate with the subconscious and conscious to warn, predict and deal with whatever it deems to be happening.

Emotions vs Thought

When we talk about “gut instinct”, “business acumen” or “artistic vision”, these are all messages from our unconscious that should be labeled “emotions”. On the highest level, we call these messages “vision”, because they really function as predictions and perspectives that enable us to deal with the situation with our available skillsets. It is borne out of experiences we have of different scenarios.

Rational thought, on the other hand, is something that uses biases of the emotions to put words to an experience. I had a friend that once asked me why he had different thoughts about himself when he was feeling down, as opposed to when he’s feeling happy. The thoughts went from “you are useless” to “you are amazing”, even though it’s the same person in the mirror.

When he felt trashy, his thoughts were an extension of how his unconscious assessed the situation; his unconscious pulled out memories of failure, judgement and disgust towards himself, informing the rest of his mind how he should believe he would fail in life. While he was feeling bad, his unconscious pulled out memories of success, achievement, value and meaning. Naturally the deduction by the conscious part of the mind – the portion in charge of rational thoughts and putting words to them – would drastically change his opinion about himself.

This is also why when a person is in the midst of an argument, everything sounds bad and things escalate no matter how small the issue is. Wait for them to calm down, and they invariably have a completely different set of responses.

Rational Thought To Change Emotions

There is a different side of this as well. When we deal with situations we feel fearful about, we can actually change the way we feel by using rational thought to help create new memories for a different future reaction. For example, when we see a person with tattoos that seems scary to us, we might think the person is probably a thug or a gangster and worth avoiding. If we continue to allow the emotion to take place and avoid him, we would continue to believe that such people are worth fearing. However, by going up to the person and asking him about the tattoo and probably even understanding the story behind it, we might gain new insights on people with tattoos, and therefore create a new unconscious reaction to people with tattoos using the new information gained from this experience.

When people say they support or hate Trump and refuse to listen to reason, it’s because the unconscious is at play, and only through creating new positive memories and experiences of the other side can they be more open to actually look at the situation rationally. People can also train themselves to instinctively look for the opposite viewpoint to challenge one’s negative emotional reaction to other people’s opinions or situations. So, as much as thoughts do not necessarily change current emotions, they definitely have power to change future emotions, if we channel them in the right direction.


This is why practice in life is so essential – it trains the unconscious to run on its own to assess each situation in the manner you deem fit; with love, positivity and understanding. This allows one to be truly rational and accepting towards reality, and is the most important reason why one has to recognise that emotions come before thoughts.

3 Men In A Room: How Our Minds Work

There have been many models trying to explain the way our minds work. Plato has likened it to shadows in a cave, where everything we experience is but a shadow of the real thing. Meanwhile, we have the elephant and the rider by Dan and Chip Heath to explain our conscious and unconscious mind. We also have Sigmund Freud explaining it in the form of id, ego and superego while his peer Carl Jung presented a completely different model based on personality-based perceptions.

3 Men In A Room is a simplification of Thought Action Paradigm, a model that merges all these concepts and ups the ante against the modern-day behaviourist angle.

Current Knowledge Regarding The Human Condition

The world has been yearning to understand the human condition, mainly through large-scale studies and surveys based on what is tangible and measurable. However, watching behaviours alone, which can be mimicked, adapted to different contexts, and is highly unpredictable, does not yield any fruitful or generalisable insight as to the way people think.

The final behaviour of each person is often removed from one’s emotional and thought processes, not just once but many times over. Furthermore, behaviour is highly contextualised to each culture, which such studies do not take into account. Most importantly, these studies are unable to predict future behaviours, which further restrains their already limited applicability.

Thought Action Paradigm

Instead, the Thought Action Paradigm was created to understand this seemingly erratic range of human behaviour by merging all the models of the human mind. It was created out of a desire to formulate a new way of using behavioural consistencies; nuances of behaviour and speech are taken into account so as to assess each person’s emotional and thought processes.

Take for example the following summary of his behaviour, “he pressed the button that sent an electric shock to the person across the room”. To understand the thoughts and emotions behind that sequence of behaviours, we need to take into account the time that each person took to make the decision to press that button, the way they looked and felt, the sweat in their palms and the way they pressed the button. In short, it takes a very intense multi-perspective look at people’s behaviour to understand their thought and emotional processes.

3 Men In A Room

3 Men In A Room is a simplification of the whole model, where we reduced it to 3 men (humans, non-gendered) who are in a room with only one window through which to see reality. Their names are conscious, subconscious and unconscious, which also correspond to Sigmund Freud’s concept of ego, superego and id respectively. Each of these 3 men come with different skillsets.

The unconscious is the person with a large store of memory, much like a memory savant who doesn’t forget anything that he experiences. However, he communicates purely in emotions and visions.

The subconscious is the only person looking out through the window to see what’s happening in the world, which makes him the only person who can interact with the outside. He is only able to communicate with the other 2 men through charades-like behaviour where he acts out what is going on.

The conscious is the person who labels everything the subconscious tells him. He does not have direct access to the unconscious or the external world and relies purely on the subconscious to tell him what is going on. He speaks in English (or whatever the person’s operational language is) and has the ability to tell the subconscious what to do.

The Problem With The 3 Men

If you had 3 men in a room who could communicate with one another using the same language and with direct access to one another, it would still take a while for them to arrive at a common understanding with one another.

However, if the 3 men are all speaking in different languages, and the unconscious and unconscious can only speak to each other through the subconscious charades-playing-man (who is the only person “in touch” with the world), how much more complicated would things be?

For better or for worse, the way our minds actually work is the latter complicated scenario where the 3 men speak in different languages and not directly to one another, but only via the subconscious.

The Ideal

The ideal state for all of us entails the unconscious effectively pulling out relevant memories to inform the subconscious what are the possibilities, extrapolated from history. The subconscious then makes decisions for the body to execute before enacting the whole story for the conscious to understand.

The conscious, through observing the subconscious’s narrative of reality, can then see what is going on, assess the impact of the person’s actions based on history, match it with ideal outcomes the unconscious wants to achieve and tells the subconscious to get more relevant information from the unconscious to process.

This process then allows the unconscious to reorganise the information before handing it back to subconscious to make decisions as recommended by parameters given by the conscious.

This is just for one set of decision making. Don’t forget that all 3 men simultaneously communicate via different modes.

The Norm

Most people often seek to avoid mistakes and wrongdoing. This causes them to end up not recognising that the subconscious often misunderstands the conscious and unconscious.

Because the conscious tells the subconscious not to make mistakes or do any wrong, the subconscious often embarks on courses of action that do not do the 3 men any good.

As a result, the subconscious ends up having to constantly check back with the conscious, which forces the conscious to be a real-time behavioural editor. This constant blow-by-blow editing tires out the conscious; it is one major reason why people slow down their thought processes.

During this whole time, the emotions are deprioritized to the point of being muted, which results in the unconscious is being ignored. The unconscious is bigger and louder than the subconscious because it is the first part of the brain to be formed. As such, it can only stand being ignored for so long.

After it’s had enough of being ignored, the unconscious, in a bid to make itself heard, starts physically forcing the subconscious to take action through the use of the feeling of “danger” (arising from the fear of imaginary catastrophic consequences). This overrides whatever the conscious tries to tell the subconscious to do.

Those turbulent interactions I’ve just described create chaos in the mind. The unconscious is always feeling ignored, the conscious is always angry, and the subconscious is always confused.

This creates chaos in the mind. The unconscious is always feeling ignored, the conscious is always angry, and the subconscious is always confused. It requires a lot of time and effort for the 3 men to start understanding one another’s nuances and reopening their channels of communication so they can work together again despite the long unsavoury history of prior miscommunication.


Now we can see why it’s so hard for people to have any significant personal growth – where the 3 men are always improving their ability to communicate and make increasingly accurate assessments of reality in order to take more and more beneficial actions.

It is important to note that effective communication between the 3 men not only requires the correct categorisation of current information going forward; it also requires the correction of previously miscategorised information in the past.

Like any world class film director, the conscious never actually has to run the show, and rather than judging, editing and policing the self, the subconscious needs to confidently interpret reality so that the conscious and unconscious can play their parts as intended.

That is how 3 Men In A Room work together, and this model is the simplest way to explain how our complex mind works without oversimplification.