In 1945, a young psychiatrist was freed after surviving 3 years imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camp system.  Fourteen years later in 1959, after successfully reviving his psychiatric practice in Vienna, Austria, Viktor Frankl published his now famous recounting of those years as a prisoner in his book, Man’s Search For Meaning.

Frankl states in his book:

When we are no longer able to change the situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. . . . Between stimulus and response there is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and freedom.”

Some 50 years later, a rapidly rising star in the Google organization presented a speech to Google I/O that he called The Cockroach Theory of Self Development that vividly portrays this space.  That rising star was Sundar Pichai, who is now the CEO of Google and here is his story:


“At a restaurant, a cockroach suddenly flew from somewhere and landed on a customer.  The customer started screaming out of fear.

 With a panic stricken face and trembling voice, the customer started jumping, with both hands desperately trying to get rid of the cockroach.  The reaction was contagious, as everyone at the table also got panicky.

 The first customer finally managed to push the cockroach away but . . . it landed on another customer in the group.  Now it was the turn of the second customer in the group to continue the drama.

 The waiter rushed forward to their rescue.  In the relay of throwing, the cockroach next fell upon the waiter.  The waiter stood firm, composed himself, and observed the behavior of the cockroach on his shirt. When he was confident enough, he grabbed it with his fingers and threw it out of the restaurant.

Sipping my coffee and watching with amusement, the antenna of my mind picked up a few thoughts and started wondering, was the cockroach responsible for their histrionic behavior?

If so, then why was the waiter not disturbed?  He handled it near to perfection, without any chaos.

 It is not the cockroach, but the inability of those people to handle the disturbance caused by the cockroach, that disturbed the two customers.  I realized that it is not the shouting of my father or my boss or my wife that disturbs me, but it’s my inability to handle the disturbances caused by their shouting that disturbs me.

 It’s not the traffic jams on the road that disturb me, but my inability to handle the disturbance caused by the traffic jam that disturbs me.  More than the problem, it’s my reaction to the problem that creates chaos in my life.”


Sundar Pichai’s speech is a great illustration of “the space” or “the gap” between the stimulus and the response in our thinking process that Frankl refers to.  The two customers reacted in the gap using the emotional, subconscious part of their brains and their reactions influenced the group – panic spread even though the cockroach was only on one of them.


The waiter, perhaps having encountered similar situations in the past, responded to the situation by using his willpower and incorporating the rational, conscious part of this brain.  He used his willpower to slow down the instinctual, reactive part of his mind to allow time for the rational and slower part of his brain to gather additional information before responding and allowing for a more appropriate response.


We are confronted with “gap” situations all the time, every time we have to make a decision or react/respond to a situation.  Many of our reactions are controlled by our subconscious, emotional brain through appropriate patterns and responses developed over time.  Examples:

  • What is the answer for 3 x 8? The answer comes quickly.
  • Think about driving the same route to and from work every day on autopilot.  Sometimes you don’t remember having driven parts of the route, but you get home safely none the less.


All situations also require the engagement of the rational, conscious brain to provide cognitive conscious input on each situation.  Examples

  • What is the answer to 17 x 24? The answer takes more effort and comes more slowly.
  • Think about the conscious effort it would take to drive a new route to work tomorrow.  You would be looking for new street signs, new intersections, and turns, and you would be much more mindful of your surroundings – no autopilot today.


Seven Key Points:

  1. Our emotional brain reacts in a fast, instinctual way.
  2. Our rational brain reacts in a slower, conscious way.
  3. Willpower is used to provide time for our rational brain to exert control over the emotional brain.
  4. Our reactive emotional brain is ‘first on the scene’ in all situations – always.
  5. Our responsive rational brain is ‘second on the scene’ in all situations, many times by only milliseconds.
  6. The rational brain is programmed to provide guidance to the emotional mind to make more informed decisions.
  7. Emotions are part of every decision or response – period.


So now what?

  1. Be aware of how your emotions impact your decisions.
  2. Be aware of how stress impacts your emotions.
  3. Be conscious of managing “the gap” as often as possible. Make it a habit!


 – Dana Couillard