Head, Heart, Gut

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The key is getting people into communication with their three brains, getting them aligned around the particular issue, and then getting the brains functioning at their highest expression.

Recent neuroscience findings have uncovered that we have complex and functional neural networks—or brains—in our heart and gut. Called the cardiac and enteric nervous systems, respectively, these adaptive neural networks display amazing levels of memory and intelligence, and there’s a growing array of evidence that these brains are deeply involved in the control and processing of numerous functions and core behavioral competencies. By combining these neuroscience findings with behavioral modeling research, several key insights that have profound implications for training, coaching, and adaptive leadership have emerged.

Behavioral Modeling Research

Over the last three years, informed by these neuroscience findings, we’ve performed behavioral modeling research on how the heart and gut brains function in the practical areas of decision-making, action taking, intuition, relationships, leadership, and personal development. Along with this action research, analysis of evidence from a wide body of divergent sources has shown that the heart and gut brains are involved in representing and processing specific forms of intelligence and intuitive functions. For instance, the heart is optimized for processing emotions such as love, joy, and connection, while the gut handles protection, self-preservation, core identity, and mobilization. What you can see from this is that each of the brains has a fundamentally different way of communicating and different concerns and domains of competence.

These findings also support commonly held notions such as trusting one’s gut instinct and being true to your heart, and they back up the assertions from many fields such as those of the Adaptive Leadership field, saying that whole leaders need to use not only their heads, but also the innate intelligence and wisdom of both their heart and gut.

The Prime Functions

Our findings indicate that there are three core prime functions for each of the three neural networks, or brains:


  • Emoting: Emotional processing (e.g., anger, grief, hatred, joy, happiness, etc.)
  • Values: Processing what’s important to you and your priorities (and its relationship to the emotional strength of your aspirations, dreams, desires, etc.)
  • Relational Affect: Your felt connection with others (e.g., feelings of love/hate/indifference, compassion/uncaring, like/dislike, etc.)


  • Core Identity: A deep and visceral sense of core self, and determining at the deepest levels what is self versus not-self
  • Self-Preservation: Protection of self, safety, boundaries, hungers, and aversions
  • Mobilization: Motility, impulse for action, gutsy courage, and the will to act


  • Cognitive Perception: Cognition, perception, pattern recognition, etc.
  • Thinking: Reasoning, abstraction, analysis, synthesis, meta-cognition, etc.
  • Making Meaning: Semantic processing, languaging, narrative, metaphor, etc.

The importance of this to the fields of coaching, training, and leadership is twofold. First, it’s crucial whenever coaching and facilitating personal or group decisions that all three intelligences are accessed and incorporated into the decision-making process. Without the head intelligence, the decision will not have been properly thought through and analyzed. Without the heart intelligence, there will not be sufficient values-driven emotional energy to care enough to act on or prioritize the decision against competing pressures. Without the gut intelligence, there will not be enough attention to managing risks nor enough willpower to mobilize and execute the decision once challenges arise.

The second implication is to ensure that the client or trainee is not using one brain to do the function of another. Each brain has its own domain of competence and by definition is not the most competent in the other prime functions. This mistake typically can be seen in organizations where the head brain is used to define the corporate values that people’s heart brains don’t really care about, or the head brain is used to design action plans that people’s gut brains don’t really engage with. Numerous other examples abound in daily corporate life.

The Consciousness of Highest Expression

One of the many powerful models emerging from our research work suggests that each of our brains has what is known as a Highest Expression. This is an emergent competency that represents the highest, most optimized and adaptive class of intelligence or competency of each brain. The Highest Expressions of each brain are:

  • Head brain – Creativity
  • Heart brain – Compassion
  • Enteric brain – Courage

What’s crucially important is that these Highest Expressions are only accessed and activated when a person is in an optimal state of neurological balance, or what is defined as autonomic coherence. This is when the person is neither too stressed nor too relaxed, but is in a flow state. And it makes sense that unless someone is in a neurological flow state, their perceptions of any particular issue or situation along and their subsequent decision-making will be impaired by contrast.

For example, if a leader’s autonomic nervous system is functioning in an overly sympathetic (e.g., stressed) state, his or her perceptions and decision-making typically will default to his or her reactive conditioning. Conversely, if his or her autonomic nervous system is functioning in an overly parasympathetic (e.g., apathetic or freeze response) state, he or she will exhibit an inability or lack of desire to act, or, at best, make timid decisions, whereas in an optimum state of autonomic balance, leaders are able to bring a higher order of consciousness to their decision-making.

Organizational Evidence

There is now a growing body of evidence in the organizational leadership literature, along with backup from the neuroscience of leadership research, that competencies such as compassion, creativity, and courage are vital for organizational success. For example, a recent study by Christina Boedker from the Australian School of Business of more than 5,600 people across 77 organizations found that the single greatest influence on profitability and productivity was a leader’s ability to be compassionate.

mBIT (multiple Brain Integration Techniques)

Coaching the multiple brains into alignment and operation from their highest expressions of creativity, compassion, and courage requires a pragmatic “how,” and a suite of simple and powerful techniques that coaches and trainers can use in appropriate contexts. As detailed in our book “mBraining,” these techniques and processes involve getting the client into communication with their three brains, getting them aligned around the particular issue, and then getting the brains functioning at their highest expression. When this is achieved, people’s innate intuitive wisdom emerges and the quality of their decisions and actions becomes adaptively and generatively different.

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