One way I check the energy and purpose of the clients I work with is to look at whether their thoughts, heart, and gut feelings match up. I’ve known for years now that a lack of commitment or a habit of procrastination means that there is a disconnect somewhere in those three.
Now, neuroscience has caught up with what I’ve intuitively known for years – in fact, we have three separate brains, and when there is conflict among the three we find it hard to move forward, take action, move off the dime, get unstuck – whatever term you want to use.
What are our three brains?
- The cephalic brain (up in the head, the only one you are taught you have in school) is the site for our creativity. With our cephalic brain we think, make meaning, and have cognition.
- The cardiac brain (in the heart) is the brain responsible for emotions, values, and relational affect. While the first brain is the “creative” brain, the cardiac brain is the “compassion” brain.
- The enteric brain (in the gut) is the “courage” brain. The gut brain has to do with our identity, self-preservation, and mobilization (ability to flee, for example).
Now you may think this is preposterous, but bear with me. Neuroscientists now know that the cephalic brain has about 50 – 100 billion neurons. The cardiac brain has 30 – 120 thousand neurons, and the enteric brain 200 – 500 million. Each of these brains is an adaptive network, each has neurotransmitters, each can process information, store memory, and has neuroplasticity (meaning they can each change as a result of experiences). Pretty wild, huh?
I’d bet you’ve heard someone say, “My heart says yes, but my gut says no.” Or maybe you’ve heard “I shouldn’t buy this house, but my heart says go for it.” In fact, what you are witnessing is a situation where that person’s three brains are at odds with each other.
We’ve known about some of this for well over a hundred years, but it got lost in the scientific world’s race to rationalize and simplify how humans interact with the world. Over the past 20 years much of this has been rediscovered and has become entirely new fields of study (one example is neurocardiology). Amazingly enough, the idea that there are 3 centers of intelligence within each of us aligns with many ancient wisdom traditions, too.
As humans, we function best when we are in alignment throughout our body and in our brains, too. We get into trouble when any of these things happen:
- We train ourselves (or our parents train us) to live exclusively using 1 or 2 of our brains
- One brain is so developed that it overwhelms the other two
- We try to make a decision best made by one brain with another brain (making a heart-based decision only from the gut, for instance)
I teach the people I work with to live a calm, consistent, committed life. I know that isn’t going to happen when there is conflict among these three brains. But remember, I said above that each brain is neuroplastic – meaning, it can change as a result of experiences. So the way to get all your brains to be in harmony is through experiences that allow change. When we do this, we actually form a new consciousness that we were unable to have before.
What are some of the ways you can bring your head, heart, and gut into alignment?
- Breath work
- Meditation or contemplative prayer
- Listening to largo music
- Living in silence for a period of time
- Using my “if only” exercise
- Asking yourself the questions you normally ask others
- Practicing daily stress reduction techniques
For today, just take in that you have three centers of intelligence in your body – and probably more that we don’t yet even know about. When you have a decision to make, or you are stuck about something, give each of your brains the chance to chime in. It doesn’t work to be “all logical” or “all heartfelt” or “always trusting your gut.”
What to learn more? Here’s a 37-minute video that is a great primer about our three brains.
And here’s one of the first books written about the “gut” brain . The Second Brain, A Groundbreaking New Understanding of Nervous Disorders of the Stomach and Intestine, by Michael Gershon, first published in 1999.
When have you been able to use all three brains to make a decision or move ahead? I’d love to hear your stories, so chime in below.