Love and relationships are better with three Brains (Head,Heart and Gut)
How many times have you been in conversation with a partner or loved one, and felt that you just couldn’t get through to them? You both understood the words, but neither of you was hearing the other? Like your brain was turned off. It’s frustrating. Disappointing. And it happens all the time.
How many times, after a conflict or disagreement, have you felt that it would have been different if you knew then what you came to understand later?
Why is it so hard to have a happy relationship? You would think that cutting-edge science would not be needed to address this question. After millions of years of evolution and tens of thousands of human societies, you’d think we’d have worked out by now how to understand, and get along with, one another. Philosophers and poets might have some insights, and I don’t want to tread on their turf.
However, as a therapist, coach, and associate professor of the science of behavioral organizational leadership and communication, I wonder what we have unlearned across the years, or what have we learned that is not actually true?
Why do people say the things they do? How do some words excite our emotions and others turn them off?
What is the connection between that gut-wrenching or passionate feeling in our heart, and our communication and interactions? And how can science have proven we react to stimuli seconds before we are consciously aware of them? Who is in charge inside us?[i].
When you talk to someone — even your partner — do you really understand their intended meaning? Is it clear to you what you want to get out of the conversation? Is it clear what the other person wants? Moreover, is there a shared understanding of where this interaction fits in the context of your relationship?
When you look at the science, you realize that human beings, the greatest thinking machines that have ever existed on this planet, don’t have much insight into how their own thinking processes work.
In the absence of a real grasp of what makes ourselves and others tick, we have been treated to one ‘theory of the mind’ after another. Some theories claim to be scientific — based on observations and case studies. Others are metaphysical or philosophical — based on thinking deeply about people and humanity. Still more have been made up by well-meaning people or by charlatans out to make a buck. The shelves of bookstore self-help sections groan under the weight of tomes peddling one vapid insight after another.
What I propose is built around crucial new insights into the science of human thinking. Current research has upended the notion that we have in our heads a single powerful mind that is home to our thoughts, emotions, and reactions. In fact, science now tells us that we have not one, but three centers of thought and memory! Each one perceives, interprets, and reacts to the world in a distinctly different way.
In addition to our well-known ‘thinking’ brain (which we will call the ‘Head Brain’), we have a ‘feeling’ brain (which we will call our ‘Heart Brain’) and a third brain — at our core — whose job it is to keep us safe. We will call this ‘self-preservation’ brain the ‘Gut Brain’.
When we get angry or upset, what triggers those feelings and emotions? If the Head Brain (or the mammal limbic, or reptilian cerebellum brain) was truly the only home to our thoughts and feelings, why is it so hard to talk ourselves out of feeling and emotion? When we feel bad, where do we feel bad? In our Head, in our Heart or in our Gut? When our hearts are broken or our guts are churning with anxiety, why is it that the dispassionately rational thoughts in our heads don’t make a dent in our emotions? When we’re inclined to blurt out things we know we shouldn’t say, what compels us to do it anyway?
When I ask these questions of my clients, my coachees, or the people I meet, they often try to explain that any shared understanding is next to impossible; especially when that interaction is with someone of the ‘opposite’ sex. “You know Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus”, they tell me. “So, it is obvious we speak different emotional languages.”
We have come, in part thanks to that popular book and its ubiquitous metaphor, to take as a revealed truth that such misunderstandings are a natural result of ingrained gender differences. Nonsense. Or let me put it more clearly: NONSENSE!
Men and women do not come from different planets. We are all human. But being human is a complicated thing. It’s hard enough to understand what drives our own thinking and ways of communicating, much less interpret what someone who was raised and socialized differently is really meaning or thinking, when they may not even know themselves. The fact that men and women have a tough time fitting in with one another is no surprise when you broaden the picture to understand that people have trouble fitting in with other people! Gender is one factor. There are many, many others. In this book, the gender of you or your partner doesn’t matter. The insights and skills we develop will enhance every one of our relationships.
Now is the time to use that knowledge to solve the problems of our own relationships, and find happiness.
Do we really have three Brains?
Let’s be clear at this point: we are not talking in metaphors. My theory is not built around some intellectual concept to help us think about how that one brain inside our skull works.
Our three Brains are real. There is a great deal of scientific research on the distinct roles, locations, and functions of the three very distinct cognitive structures we carry around in our head and body.
Before now, if Heart and Gut Brains were thought to exist at all, they were considered separate entities that existed and reacted independently and were not capable of communicating or collaborating with one another. We have come to know differently.
The important thing is to understand what the three Brains are, and how they work. We can then apply the insights resulting from the research in practical ways to help us manage (and sometimes control) our own Brains and how we interact with others.
In the past, the Heart and Gut Brains have been neglected (or dismissed) by Western scientific researchers. In therapy and coaching they are often referred to as the ‘unconscious mind’; you may have seen those pictures of icebergs, one tiny part above the water (our conscious mind) and 90% beneath the water (the sub- or unconscious). From this moment on, the subconscious is tangible and has a name: Heart and Gut Brain.
They don’t speak the same language as the Head Brain. Their decisions can seem illogical. They can be stubborn and, especially to people whose own Head Brains are dominant, like scientific researchers, what the other Brains contribute can be irritating and seem downright stupid.
But know this before you go one step further: Your Heart and Gut Brains are not stupid. Not one bit. Often, they are much more insightful and attuned to our needs than the Head Brain, which can be distracted and beguiled by shiny objects, bad information, and bogus comparisons. The Heart and Gut Brains experience and interpret our internal and external environments in their own ways. They analyze, remember, and make decisions about what we should do, even when it’s hard to put those reasons into words. Words are the Head Brain’s domain, and if it doesn’t understand something, it can’t articulate it. But, if we can screw on our Head Brain correctly, and educate it a bit, we can learn to listen to all three Brains and become wiser and happier in the process.
Stereotyping provides an excuse to blame the other in a failing relationship
Our Brains love to place things into categories. It saves time and energy, as well as intellectual effort. Categories are useful when thinking about some things. Look at a restaurant menu, divided into meat, fish, and vegetarian dishes. This makes it easy to see what is on offer. Categories are worse than useless. Lumping people into categories — be they ‘men’ and ‘women’ or some other way of dividing people into subsets of humanity — is just laziness. It’s a way of avoiding the effort of thinking.
So, it boggles the mind to see how many relationship guides, including ones that sell millions of copies, fall into using stereotypes — especially ones that ascribe certain ways of thinking or acting to men and women. It is easy to do — not because male brains and female brains are fundamentally different — but because, in most parts of the world, boys and girls are socialized differently and taught to value different aspects of themselves. When they grow up to become men and women, they often continue to think of themselves as being defined (or constrained) by culturally defined traits supposed to be characteristic of their gender. This is not a good thing, but it is true. When even the people who are the target of a stereotype start to believe it, you have a real problem. This is one reason stereotypes are so hard to eradicate.
One of my hopes for this 3 Brains Theory is that we can start to break out of stereotypical thinking. I hope the insights we discuss here will help people re-socialize themselves, so that those who have been encouraged to let their Head and Gut Brains dominate, learn to listen to their Heart Brain, while people who have been trained to prioritize what their Heart Brain advises, open up their hearts to some of the wisdom that they have been ignoring in their Head Brain and even more so in their Gut Brain.
However, your own Brains are configured, I hope to help you understand more about them, and to provide you with techniques, and a new mindset. If I (we) succeed, you will become a more centered, happier person, and a better partner in both your personal and professional life.
To achieve this, we must acknowledge that sometimes only one Brain is in charge, while at other times, a combination of two or all three Brains are involved in decision-making. With this knowledge, you will be capable of learning your own mindset and that of your partner, friends, and colleagues.
With such a powerful tool at your disposal, you will be able to break free of stereotypes and say goodbye to many misunderstandings in your life.