Research Paper By Birte Kuhn
(Conscious Leadership and Corporate Coach, CANADA)
Our Three Brains
The core belief of coaching is that the client has their answers and the role of the coach is to help the client find and tap into their inner wisdom. But where does this wisdom come from and how do we help our clients to access it? When we think about wisdom and intelligence the first thing that comes to mind is our head brain. Why did I say “head” brain and not just the brain? It turns out, we possess multiple brains, which all provide their innate intelligence. Three brains sound crazy? Let’s look at how a brain is defined: “A brain is defined as a complex and functional neural network that has a memory, intelligence, and control over the decisions we make.” (Vicki Brook, 2015) In recent years neuroscience research has uncovered that we humans have three of such complex and functional neural networks. Those three brains are the one in our head (cephalic or central nervous system), the one in our heart (cardiac nervous system), and the one in our gut (enteric nervous system).
Interestingly, ancient philosophy and spiritual traditions knew about multiple minds, intelligence, or energy centers within our bodies. Sage advice and teaching about how to generate and access deeper levels of wisdom within ourselves can be found across nearly all spiritual disciplines and esoteric traditions. And many of them specifically indicate the existence of three souls or intelligence (or brains) in our body. Aristotle’s used this knowledge in his masterpiece “Rhetoric” when he defines three ways to persuade an audience: Logos (an appeal to logic or head brain), pathos (an appeal to emotion or heart-brain), and ethos (credibility of the speaker or gut brain). This ancient knowledge has lived on in traditional folk wisdom and can be found in several sayings we use every day, such as:
“Follow your heart”
“Trust your gut instincts”
“Use your intuition”
“Be true to your heart”
In the last decades, neuroscience finally caught up with what we already knew. Research findings show that the head brain, heart brain, and gut-brain each have their prime functions. As Soosalu and Oka explain in their book mBraining, “each brain has a fundamentally different form of intelligence, they utilize different languages, have different goals, and operate under different criteria. In other words, your head, heart, and gut have different ways of processing the world, of communicating, operating, and addressing their concerns and domains of expertise.”
The Core Competencies of Each Brain
The research identified the specific core competencies unique to each brain. What stands out is that these prime functions seem almost obvious and you will be able to validate in your own experience.
The heart-brain “is used mostly for processing emotions (joy, jealousy, anger, hate, love, lust, compassion, empathy). It helps you to discover what is most important to you in life, priorities, and values. It helps you to connect or disconnect with others based on similarities or differences in those values.” (Stebbins 2013)
Prime functions: Emoting, values, relational affect
The gut-brain “is your core identity and contains the deepest levels of the self. You rely on your gut often for quick decision-making; that fight or flight response (safety or risk). You may find courage, fear, action, and grit down there.” (Miller 2014)
Prime functions: Core Identity, self-preservation, mobilization
The heart-brain “is primarily used for cognitive perception and pattern recognition. You use your head to reason, analyze, and synthesize information that comes in. One way your 3 head makes meaning of things is through language (verbal, written, body), telling stories, and using metaphors.” (Stebbins 2013)
Prime functions: Cognitive Perception, thinking, making meaning
The role of the coach is to help the client to access the three brains, communicate with them, and channel them toward wiser decision-making and living. While alignment of the three bits of intelligence is desirable in every life situation, there are some contexts in which your three brains must be working together, which are: Goal-setting, decision-making, problem-solving, motivation and action-taking, cultivating perspective, relationships, learning, and behavioral change, health, and wellbeing. Doesn’t that sound like an overview of most coaching topics clients come to a coach with? This is why understanding how each of the brain works is so important for coaches and has a profound impact on the coaching process.
It is important to understand though, that the integration of the three inherent bits of intelligence is not only important for the client, but it is as important for the coach herself. Given that the coach has three brains as well, she needs to ensure to use a holistic coaching approach. This calls for the coach and the client to use all three brains or at least consider the input from each during the coaching process. Vikki Brock provides the following example in her article “Neuroscience and Coaching: Impact of Coaching on a Leader’s Three Brains”:
The coach begins with deep listening from her gut, heart, and head. For example, your client is sharing a work situation (context) that involves a challenging assignment with a short deadline that may not be value-added (situation). The coach has a hunch that there is more to this situation (gut), she feels compassion for the exhaustion in the client’s voice (heart), and notes the elements of short deadline for the non-value-added task (head). The coach now has a choice to respond to one, two, or all three brains. An integrated response might be “I hear the exhaustion in your voice (heart) at the challenge of this assignment (head) and yet I sense there is more going on here (gut).” Next, the coach should pause for the client to take this in each of her brains.
Of course, holistic coaching doesn’t mean that every question of the coach needs to address all three brains at the same time. But as a coach, it is important to listen to the messages or information provided by all three brains to best support your client.
The above shows how knowing about the three brains has a positive impact on the overall coaching process. In addition to that, it will also help the coach to identify the client’s problems that might arise from miscommunication between the three brains. Problems can occur in two ways.
1. Only one or two of the intelligence are accessed and incorporated into the decision-making process. Without accessing the head brain, the decision will not be properly thought through and analyzed. Without incorporating the heart-brain into the decision, there will not be sufficient values-driven emotional energy to care enough to act on or prioritize the decision against competing forces. Without integrating the gut-brain, there won’t be enough attention to managing risks, and not enough willpower to mobilize and execute the decision once confronted by challenges.
2. The second problem could that can occur is that one brain might be used to do the function of another. As we learned earlier, each brain had its area of competence and by definition is not the most competent in the other prime functions. This shows for example when the head brain is used to design action plans that people’s gut brains don’t engage with.
Both of these described problems can occur when the client is under pressure or out of habit. It may be likened to “over-reliance” or “overdrive” when one brain is overused or used inappropriately in the exclusion of the other brains. Running one of the brains on overdrive will impact a person’s behavior and thinking in a limiting way. This is what can be observed in people on “overdrive”:
- Gut-Brain Overdrive: Reactive, impulsive, and action-oriented. However, this is useful in an emergency, or when safety or survival is threatened.
- Heart-Brain Overdrive: Concern about self-image, impact on others, and lives of others. May end up waiting, hoping, and dreaming – or show emotions too obviously and readily.
- Head Brain Overdrive: Plan and prepare, focus on what could go wrong, too much
visioning, or try to do it all. May be viewed by others as cold, impersonal, and calculating.
When the coach is experiencing a possible overdrive situation in a client, she could consider asking some of the following questions:
- What does your gut tell you?
- How does your heart feel?
- What does your head say?
In today’s society, we rely heavily on our head brain and a head brain overdrive is quite common. However, to find a balance and make better decisions we also need to use our two other brains to processes our feelings (heart) and listen to our intuition (gut). Coaching can create an environment, in which the head, heart, and guts can be valued. In this environment, clients can feel comfortable sharing ideas that challenge traditions and norms – heart and gut issues.
Exercise: Breath into Each Brain
The following exercise can help the client to access, and listen to all three of his brains. The coach guides the client through the following steps:
Step 1: Focus and breathe
Ask the client to focus on a problem/opportunity he is experiencing right now in his life or a decision he needs to make. Allow the clients to focus for a few moments on the problem/opportunity. Then begin the breathing exercise by asking the following questions, allowing enough time between questions.
- As you breathe into your head ask yourself: What do I think about this situation?
- As you breathe into your chest ask yourself: How do I feel about this situation?
- As you breathe into your belly ask yourself: What are my gut instincts or inner voice
telling me to do?
Step 2: Reflection
Ask the client what answers came up for him and what insights he gained for each of the brains. Sometimes the outcome can be quite surprising for the client and he might need to sit with the new information for some time. Help the client consider possible ways forward and to identify, which of those aligns best with his heart, gut, and head.
Many clients use their head brain to make great plans and resolutions about making life changes or breaking old habits. But how many of them still struggle to make real and lasting changes in their lives? Problems occur when the three brains are not aligned or fully integrated at the time of decision-making. For real, deep, generative change to occur it takes all of your brains working together and be aligned. So ideally, all three brains are already included in the decision-making process. If that didn’t happen and clients consequently struggle with implementing change the above exercise can be used as well to discover, which of the brains is sabotaging the changes. Often, it can be enough to listen to the messages of all three brains, for the right decision to emerge.
Brook, Vikki (2017). Head-Heart-Gut Approach to Coaching. Library of professional coaching. Head-Heart-Guts-approach-to-coaching.Final_-1.pdf
Brook, Vikki (2015). Neuroscience and Coaching: Impact of Coaching on a Leader’s Three Brains. Coaching Journal Article, Executive Coaching Program UT Dallas. 5f4a09a315d7.pdf
Miller, J. (2014). “The Best Way to Better Decisions: How to Unite Your Head, Heart & Gut.” Retrieved August 15, 2014 from unite-head-heart-gut/.
Soosalu, Grant.,Oka, Marvin (2012). mBRaining: using your multiple brains to do cool stuff. International Pty Ltd
Stebbins, G. (2013). “Letting Wisdom Lead: Are You Leading With Your Heart and Your Gut?.” Retrieved August 15, 2014, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gregory-stebbins/lettingwisdom- lead-are-y_b_2878813.html.