If you believe you only have one brain – in your head – think again. Scientists are now saying we humans have three brains: in the cerebrum, the heart, and the gut. This explains why our feelings are sometimes at odds with our thoughts.
Each of the body’s brains has its own intrinsic nervous system with neurons able to perform complex adaptive processes. These neural networks can input information, process it, store it, change it, and adapt. Any part of the body that can learn is a brain, according to some researchers.
The head-brain runs conscious thought processes such as cognition and perception. This is where recognition happens and meaning is assigned to objects and experiences. Keywords for the head-brain are: “I think,” “I know,” and “I understand.”
The heart-brain is the seat of human emotion. Ask anyone to point out the body part responsible for how feelings such as tenderness or love and it will almost certainly be the left chest area. This wellspring of deep emotion holds our values, regulates the natural process of emoting, and processes how we judge and feel about relationships. Keywords for the heart-brain are “I feel,” and “I sense.”
The gut-brain is home to a person’s core identity and convictions. Not only does the gut biome play a key role in the immune system, but it also takes charge of personal survival issues such as self-preservation, fear, anxiety, mobility, and action. Keywords for the fight-or-flight gut-brain are “That takes guts,” or “I have no stomach for it.”
How many times has your brain told you one thing but your heart told you something else? Have you ever dreaded doing something you knew needed to be done? These are examples of tri-brain conflicts.
The head-brain is busy using logic to make intelligent decisions. Meanwhile, the heart is going pitter-patter over some new love. At the same time, the gut may be sending warning signals to back off the junk food and indulge in more veggies.
So while the head is saying, “I should follow the reasonable rules I learned,” the gut says, “Whoa, back off, that’s not safe,” and the heart says, “I don’t care about my safety or what’s logical or expected of me, I want to do my thing.”
Usually, one or two of the three bodily brains override the other(s). Furthermore, different people will have different dominant brains. The neural networks in each of the three brains grow the more you use them. People who exercise their head-brain will have enhanced mental functions – but perhaps at the expense of the heart-brain.
The ancient Eastern mind/body practice of yoga recognizes three intelligences – or wisdoms – called the head, heart, and gut. Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud said the human personality is made up of the id (gut), ego (head), and superego (heart).
Because the language centers exist in the head-brain, it may be hard for some people to voice the instinctual nagging gut that warns of a potentially unsafe situation. Ignoring the heart’s honest feelings can lead us to activities that violate our innermost moral code. Such inner conflicts can create stress.
Emotional eating is a heart function that seldom leads to emotional satisfaction because feeling good is a heart function rather than a gut function.
Those having trouble resolving a matter they can’t move beyond often lack forgiveness. Although many people would say this attitude is based in the heart-brain, it actually arises from the gut-brain. Forgiveness can be curative when something (or someone) has trespassed our boundaries and threatened our safety or core identity.
The very phrase, “I can’t get past it,” means there is no movement – controlled by the gut-brain. A person who is stuck in a rut must let go to move forward and put it behind. Identity and action fall within the realm of the gut-brain.
The first step to balancing the three competing and self-interested bodily brains is to use a very simple technique to focus and center your mind/body. To establish autonomic balance and a state of metacognition you need, perform deep diaphragmatic breathing at an even rate – commonly called meditation.
Placing your awareness on your inhalations and exhalations affects the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and changes your brain state. You can even alter your heart rate within a minute by breathing evenly in and out to get to autonomic coherence and sync all three brains.
Once calm and centered, detach yourself from the narratives (stories and self-talk) you have constructed in each of your body’s brains. Let go of all preconceived notions, fears, and doubts.
Ask your heart directly what it really wants and values. Then, ask what your gut wants to say. Listen to your head-brain last – it almost always gets the most attention which leads to an imbalance. Don’t be surprised if your internal voice takes on a different tone as a truer language pattern emerges.
When the brains in our heads, hearts, and guts work together, a higher level of consciousness can arise as these three neural networks express themselves more honestly. The balanced interplay of compassion from the heart, creativity from the head, and courage from the gut helps a person become genuine and intentional.