Head, Heart, and Gut: How to Use the 3 Brains

Listen to your gut. Follow your heart. Use your head. The combined wisdom will help guide you.

Aug 20, 2020

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Today, the head, heart, and gut are all classified as functional brains, and science now shows that there are complex neural networks in all three, according to a study published in SAGE Journals. 

You probably have a sense of this already. Think about a time when you had to speak in front of a large group, and you felt butterflies in your stomach or knots in your belly. Or when you fell in love for the first time, and you felt it in your heart.

Listening to all three is critical in decision making. These three brains help to make smart decisions, to avoid dangerous situations, to navigate important choices, and to spend time with people who you love. 

It’s known in neuroscience as multiple brain integration or mBIT, according to research from the Unitec Institute of Technology. When faced with a decision, using the combined wisdom of your head, heart, and gut provides a new level of self-awareness that will guide you to make better decisions.

Anil K Rajvanshi told Times of India, “To produce deep thought which helps in improving the wellbeing of a person, the gut and heart brains must work together with the main brain. When all work harmoniously, it creates a healthy body and a powerful mind.”

So what are your three brains telling you? You can learn to listen to the messages your body sends you all the time in your head, your heart, and your gut. 

Follow Your Heart

When you feel torn between two decisions, has anyone ever told you to “listen to your heart”? 

According to a 2019 study, your heart is constantly sending emotional signals to guide you, to notice fears, and communicate what you truly want.

Scientists call this little brain the intrinsic cardiac nervous system, or the heart brain. And it’s not so little. A study reveals that humans have around 40,000 cardiac neurons, working together to communicate across the heart’s nervous system, from the heart up along the vagus nerve to the head brain. 

You might expect that the brain does most of the talking. Actually, it’s the other way around, and the heart sends more messages up to the brain. The head brain understands these messages and often obeys. 

A silent, subconscious conversation is happening inside you between your head and your heart. In order to listen, you want to get out of your mind and get into your body a little bit. 

For example, when trying to decide who to date, how does your heart react? Does your heart begin to beat faster out of fear or panic? Fear often arises when addressing vulnerabilities. When faced with a choice, even a small day-to-day decision, notice how your heart reacts. 

 

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Trust Your Gut

If you’ve ever gone with your gut feeling or felt butterflies in your belly, you already noticed your second brain. The gut brain is hidden in the walls of your digestive system. Scientists from Johns Hopkins Medicine call this second brain the enteric nervous system (ENS). It consists of two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining your gastrointestinal tract from the esophagus to the rectum.

Doctors once believed that the brain talked down to the stomach, and people with emotional struggles, like anxiety and depression, developed stomach problems. But communication goes both ways. In fact, according to a study in The Journal of Medicinal Food, 400 times more messages go up from the gut microbiomes to the brain, than from the brain to the gut.

“For decades, researchers and doctors thought that anxiety and depression contributed to these problems. But our studies and others show that it may also be the other way around,” said Jay Pasricha, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology in Johns Hopkins Medicine.

When you listen to the messages your gut sends you, you will know more about what is happening in your body. Irritation in the gastrointestinal system may send signals to the brain that trigger mood changes, which can be treated by eating gut healthy foods.

The gut brain can also help you better understand your intuition—your gut instinct. Responses in the stomach or intestines may be sending you information about a situation to better understand your surroundings, or to sense a subtle feeling of danger. 

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Use Your Head

That’s not to say that the brains in the heart and the gut are as sophisticated as the head brain. The brain is one of the most complex organs in the body, composed of over 100 billion neurons that communicate along trillions of connections called synapses, according to WebMD

Specialized areas of the brain work together to store and access memories and process your surroundings. The brain can help in making really good decisions in really difficult situations. You can come up with solutions to complex problems.

So of course, it’s good to use your head when it comes to decision-making, but be willing to pull up a chair for your other brains. 

Notice what you feel in your body. Access the combined wisdom of your head brain, the feelings of your heart brain, and the instincts of your gut brain. When you take the three messages from your head, your heart, and your gut, you’ll have a fuller perspective on how to take action.

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