319. 3 Brains

Over the last decade or so, the field of Neuroscience has uncovered some intriguing findings that give support to the ideas that true leaders use all of the intelligence available to them and go well beyond that of just their head brain.

Starting with his pioneering research on neuro-cardiology, Dr. J. Andrew Armour introduced the concept of a functional brain in the heart. His work revealed that the heart has a complex intrinsic neural network sufficiently sophisticated to qualify as a ‘brain’ in its own right. The heart’s neural network meets all the criteria specified for a brain including several types of neurons, motor neurons, sensory neurons, interneurons, neurotransmitters, proteins and support cells. Its complex and elaborate neural circuitry allows the heart brain to function independently of the head brain and it can learn, remember, feel and sense.

Following on, in 1998, Neurobiologist and M.D. Dr. Michael Gershon published his pivotal book, ‘The Second Brain’, in which he described the culmination of over a decade of research and discovery that the gut also contains a complex and fully functional neural network or ‘brain’. The gut brain, also known as the enteric brain, contains over 500 million neurons and sends and receives nerve signals throughout the chest and torso and innervates organs as diverse as the pancreas, lungs, diaphragm and liver. The gut brain is a vast chemical and neuro-hormonal warehouse and utilizes every class of neurotransmitter found in the head brain. Research has shown that the gut brain can learn, store memories and perform complex independent processing.

The significance of these findings and its development is profound. Modelling the competencies and functions of the heart and gut brains, these Neuroscience findings pretty much confirm my research on how the heart and gut brains function in the practical areas of decision-making, action-taking, intuition, relationships, health and wellbeing, and personal fulfilment. Along with this research, further analysis of evidence from a wide body of divergent sources has shown that the heart and gut brains are involved in representing and processing very specific forms of intelligence and intuitive functions.

These findings support commonly held notions such as trusting one’s ‘gut instinct’ and being ‘true to your heart’, and they also back up the assertions that we need to use not only our heads, but also the innate intelligence and wisdom of both our heart and gut.

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.

It will be clear that each of the brains has a fundamentally different form of intelligence and has different goals operating under different criteria. In other words, the head, heart and gut have different ways of processing the world with different concerns and domains of competence.

The importance of this to you is two-fold. First, it’s crucial whenever making 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 analysed. 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 sufficient attention to managing risks nor enough willpower to mobilize and execute the decision once challenges arise.

The second implication is to ensure you avoid 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 can be typically seen in organizations where the managing director/ 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 and personal life.

This is why we maintain that to cope with the complexity of modern day life and business, truly adaptive leaders need to use more than just the skills engendered in their head brains. Leaders must learn specifically how to tap into, communicate with and align their multiple brains – their head, heart and gut intelligences — and gain the synergy and ‘’wisdom’’ that arises from ‘multiple brain leadership’. And equally important, to also learn how to influence and align the multiple-brains of those they are leading.

One of the many powerful models emerging from this research work suggests that each of our brains has what is known as a ‘Highest Expression’. This is an emergent competency that expresses what it means to be truly and deeply human. It 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

[Note: while there may not be a single, definitive Highest Expression for each brain that is true for everyone in all contexts, I have found in our  research that the above generative set serves as a powerful foundation for consistently emerging higher orders of wisdom and ways of being. Furthermore it must be said that this development is not the highest state of being but merely a stepping stone in the development of consciousness, but more on this later. ]

These Highest Expressions are accessed and activated when the leader is in an optimum state of neurological balance, or what is defined as ‘autonomic coherence’ where they are neither too stressed nor too relaxed, but are in a ‘flow state’. It makes sense that unless a leader is in a neurological flow state, their perceptions of any particular issue or situation along with their subsequent decision-making must be impaired by contrast.

For instance, if the leader’s autonomic nervous system is functioning in an overly sympathetic (e.g. stressed) state, their perceptions and decision-making will typically default to their reactive conditioning. Conversely, if their autonomic nervous system is functioning in an overly parasympathetic (e.g. apathetic or ‘freeze response’) state, they will exhibit an inability or lack of desire to act, or at best make timid decisions.

When in an optimum state of autonomic balance, however, I have found that leaders are able to bring a higher order of consciousness to their decision-making. Additionally, they also make decisions and take actions that arise from a more authentic expression of their deepest and highest sense of self (this self is of course not that which we aim at, but one is to understand it in order to be aware of the processes and influences that I will talk about later on).


As a Highest Expression, what I mean by this is not just lateral thinking or thinking outside the box. Instead, I mean the creative and collaborative process by which a leader is able to conceive of new possibilities and new futures that emerge as an authentic expression of who they are and what’s important to them. It’s also about the collaborative process of manifesting these new possibilities into reality. The process of creativity requires more than just mere imagination. If nothing manifests in the physical world, then nothing can be deemed to have been created.

The head brain’s Highest Expression of Creativity is also about the leader being able to continually generate entirely new lines of thinking and new perspectives that can transform their world and the world of their organizations. The import of this sense of creativity is obvious to the practical applications of adaptive and generative leadership.


While this is not a word that is commonly used in business parlance, it is indeed commonly used by almost all wisdom traditions whenever describing the higher qualities of human consciousness and of the very nature of being human. Within the context of adaptive and generative leadership, it’s essential to remain cognizant of the obvious fact that leaders are humans, and that the people they lead are also humans. Subsequently, compassion does in fact play a significant role for authentic leaders who lead not because they have positional power, but instead lead because they feel a connection with the people and the communities they serve.

True leaders are emotionally (that is to say compassion in the true sense of the word) connected to their staff, their customers and the communities in which their organization impacts. In other words, they care. And being values-driven, they care enough that if the current human condition is not satisfactory then their sense of compassion for those affected causes them to step up as leaders and take action to improve that situation. Compassion encompasses a conscious intention for helping people experience and benefit from a better way of doing things and a better way of being. The heart brain’s Highest Expression of Compassion is an active expression of true leadership that connects with, values, relates to and responds to human needs and the human condition.


By definition, leaders lead. They take us to new places and new futures that are different and better than our current set of conditions. They create, invoke and stimulate change to the status quo, and this takes courage. A leader who does not have courage is no leader. Without courage, someone with the opportunity to lead will quickly back down and capitulate at the first sign of resistance or challenge. Without courage, a true leader is not able to act upon their visions, dreams and goals. They are not able to live a deeply authentic life due to fear of things unknown, uncertain, or unfamiliar. Without courage, change from the status quo would either be impossible or occur only by accident or luck.

In contrast, with courage a leader’s gut brain is able to express their deepest sense of self by empowering them to act in ways that are true to what’s important to them and who they really are as leaders. With courage, the leaders gut brain is able to empower them to act from their deepest sense of identity in spite of any fear-based conditioned reactions.

It’s about valuing people and being receptive and responsive, and finding ways “to create the right support mechanisms to allow people to be as good as they can be.

It’s also important to note that compassion is not about pity, sympathy or niceness. It’s about deeply supporting and nurturing people to be the best they can be; to guide and coach them to bring the most calmness, creativity and courage to solving their issues and to flourishing within their organizational environment. A good management is ultimately an act of compassion, and requires leaders to take responsibility for the growth and development of others.

But taking responsibility for organizational systems and the people in them can be overwhelming, tiring or frightening. And this is where Courage as a highest expression kicks in. Through engendering courage in themselves, as well as in the people they are leading, adaptive and generative leaders can push through the barriers to organizational change. Organizations require creativity and innovation to adapt to rapidly changing environments, and the change engendered by this often leads to cognitive dissonance and push back by the people impacted by the new paradigms the leader is emerging.

A focus on compassionate leadership and sponsorship within the organization allows people to feel valued, validated and supported, making them more amenable to supporting the creative evolution of the organization. Aligning this with courage, enables people to cope with the fears and uncertainties and to make the most of emerging opportunities that together with their leader the organization is creating.

The Generative Power of Sequence

Another key finding from my behavioural  research is the importance of sequence whenever aligning and harnessing the wisdom of your three brains. The order in which each of your brains is accessed makes a significant difference to how they work together and the wisdom that does or doesn’t emerge. This makes sense when you consider the fact that each are separate neural networks with different Prime Functions. It therefore makes a difference if the head is influencing the heart or the heart is influencing the head, or if the gut is leading the head or if the head is directing the gut (along with any of the numerous combinations between the three brains). In other words, it makes a difference if your thoughts are influencing your feelings or if your feelings are influencing your thoughts, or if your gut reactions shape your perceptions and thinking versus your thought processes triggering your gut reactions.

Of the multiple combinations that are possible between the three brains, I have found there is a particular sequence that is more ‘neurologically friendly’ than others and seems to be the most generative in its results.  I have also found that particular sequence to be the natural order in which many widely admired role models of leadership intuitively do, ranging from socio-political leaders to commercial entrepreneurs.

This organic sequence is what I call the ‘Foundational Sequence’ and as a general rule (other than for specifically contextualized situations) can be used for the purposes of leadership development, diagnosis, and praxis. It can be used for developmental purposes in leadership trainings and coaching, it can be used to diagnose the quality of consciousness in play by any particular leader at any point in time, and it can be used by leaders as a real-time personal strategy to utilize and embody.

The Foundational Sequence starts with the heart intelligence. From a leadership perspective, engaging the Prime Functions of your heart brain ensures you start with a felt connection to the people you lead and the communities you serve. This felt connection arises from a values-based connection within yourself and generates strong emotional energy and a desire to respond to human issues in meaningful ways.

The Foundational Sequence then moves from the heart to the head brain. The connected and values-based emotional states from the heart influence and shape the head brain’s thoughts, perceptions and interpretations. This influence of the heart on the head is essential for authentic leadership and your personal life. The perspective of a compassionate heart provides the emotional fuel and desire to make things better for others, for yourself, for your organization and for the world. This directionalizes the creative perspective of the head brain to synthesize all available information into a larger pattern for a new way of seeing and understanding the situation or issue. In a manner of speaking, this is the ‘heart’ of a true visioning process that is meaningful and inspiring.

The Foundational Sequence continues as these new insights and understandings from the head are emotionally reinforced and supported by the heart brain by giving them high value and salience. The combined signals of the heart and head neural networks then connect with the gut brain which then assimilates them into the leader’s identity and mobilizes them into action. As these actions are values-driven, the leader’s identity is greatly expanded and evolved through this action-taking.

The Foundational Sequence finishes back at the heart brain to ensure the underlying values and human connection remains the anchor point across time as the leader takes ongoing action in the world.

In short, the Foundational Sequence that produces the most generative change is: 1) start with the heart, 2) move to the head, 3) move back to the heart, 4) move down to the gut, 5) finally, move back to the heart.

Generative Wisdom and Generative Leadership

Adaptive and generative leadership requires integration across all three brains to bring the greatest possible intelligence to bear in the organization. It also requires that the multiple brains be aligned through their Highest Expressions so that generative wisdom emerges in the leader’s actions, decisions and ways of being.

Generative wisdom is wisdom that is enacted; it is wisdom that is inculcated and behaviourally practiced in the way the leader lives their life. And for wisdom to be generative it needs to be creative, compassionate and courageous.

Generative wisdom is a wisdom that is holistic and transformational. It continually transforms who you are, how you see the world and how you relate to it. In essence, generative wisdom is about continually emerging your highest sense of self through the pragmatics of daily living. And for leaders, this includes the way you are leading your organization, your industry, and the wider communities you impact.

We have three functioning brains in our body. Using these findings as the basis I have discovered patterns of competencies that are foundational to adaptive and generative leadership. So let’s look at some techniques and processes for aligning and harnessing the wisdom of the three brains. It will provide leaders with a range of simple and pragmatic tools and methods for engaging and developing the head, heart and gut intelligences of every individual and team within an organization.

There are obvious and immediate applications of it to organizational decision making, talent development, relationship building, coaching, and the full range of people skills that make a leader truly great. The best companies develop ‘complete’ leaders, and with this, those leaders are able to tap into and harness the intuitive intelligence of their multiple brains to know how to wisely guide and evolve their people, their relationships, their decisions and their organizational worlds.

Great leaders turn out to be those who are deeply in touch with their head, heart and guts. Even more so, it is my view that some of the greatest gains to organizational success come from harnessing the intuitive wisdom of both leaders and those they lead, so that organizations can truly evolve and adapt with generative wisdom within our complex and rapidly changing world.

Picture a situation that is emotionally loaded in your mind. Now by changing the size, brightness, distance, colour, movement, point of view, etc. of that image, you can change how you respond to it. These elements are called sub modalities, and they can be used to change any image, no matter what the content is. Learn how you can be more in control of your own life, and less subject to events around you.

I’d like you to try some very simple experiments, to teach you a little bit about how you can learn to run your own brain. You will need this experience to understand the rest of this, so I recommend that you actually do the following  exercise.

Think of a past experience that was very pleasant–perhaps one that you haven’t thought about in a long time. Pause for a moment to go back to that memory, and be sure that you see what you saw at the time that pleasant event happened.

Close your eyes if that makes it easier to do….

As you look at that pleasant memory, I want you to change the brightness of the image, and notice how your feelings change in response. First make it brighter and brighter….Now make it dimmer and dimmer, until you can barely see it….Now make it brighter again.

How does that change the way you feel? There are always exceptions, but for most of you, when you make the picture brighter, your feelings will become stronger. Increasing brightness usually increases the intensity of feelings, and decreasing brightness usually decreases the intensity of feelings.

How many of you ever thought about the possibility of intentionally varying the brightness of an internal image in order to feel different? Most of you just let your brain randomly show you any picture it wants, and you feel good or bad in response.

Now think of an unpleasant memory, something you think about that makes you feel bad. Now make the picture dimmer and dimmer….If you turn the brightness down far enough, it won’t bother you anymore. You can save yourself thousands of euros in psychotherapy bills.

I have seen these practices change people. One woman told me that she was happy all the time; she didn’t let things get to her. How she did it?  “Those unpleasant thoughts come into mind, but I just turn the brightness down.”

Brightness is one of the “sub modalities” of the visual modality. Sub modalities are universal elements that can be used to change any visual image, no matter what the content is. The auditory and kinaesthetic modalities also have sub modalities, but for now we’ll play with the visual sub modalities.

Brightness is only one of many things you can vary. Before we go on to others, I want to talk about the exceptions to the impact brightness usually has. If you make a picture so bright that it washes out the details and becomes almost white, that will reduce, rather than increase, the intensity of your feelings. Usually the relationship doesn’t hold at the upper extreme. For some people, the relationship is reversed in most contexts, so that increasing brightness decreases the intensity of their feelings.

Some exceptions are related to the content. If your pleasant picture is candlelight, or twilight, or sunset, part of its special charm is due to the dimness; if you brighten the image, your feelings may decrease. On the other hand, if you recalled a time when you were afraid in the dark, the fear may be due to not being able to see what’s there. If you brighten that image and see that there’s nothing there, your fear will decrease, rather than increase. So there are always exceptions, and when you examine them, the exceptions make sense, too. Whatever the relationship is, you can use that information to change your experience.

Now let’s play with another sub modality variable. Pick another pleasant memory and vary the size of the picture. First make it bigger and bigger…and then smaller and smaller, noticing how your feelings change in response….

The usual relationship is that a bigger picture intensifies your response, and a smaller picture diminishes it. Again there are exceptions, particularly at the upper end of the scale. When a picture gets very large, it may suddenly seem ridiculous or unreal. Your response may then change in quality instead of intensity–from pleasure to laughter, for instance.

If you change the size of an unpleasant picture, you will probably find that making it smaller also decreases your feelings. If making it really big makes it ridiculous and laughable, then you can also use that to feel better. Try it. Find out what works for you….

It doesn’t matter what the relationship is, as long as you find out how it works for your brain so that you can learn to control your experience. If you think about it, none of this should be at all surprising. People talk about a “dim future” or “bright prospects”,  “Everything looks black”,  “My mind went blank”,  “It’s a small thing, but she blows it all out of proportion”. When someone says something like that, it’s not metaphorical; it’s usually a literal and precise description of what the person is experiencing inside.

If someone is “blowing something out of proportion”,  you can tell her to shrink that picture down. If she sees a “dim future”,  have her brighten it up. It sounds simple….and it is.

There are all these things inside your mind that you never thought of playing with. You don’t want to go messing around with your head, right? Let other people do it instead. All the things that go on in your mind affect you, and they are all potentially within your control. The question is, who’s going to run your brain? How often have you heard the phrase, “She has a bright future”, or “He has a colourful past”? Expressions like these are more than metaphors. They are precise descriptions of the speaker’s internal thinking, and these descriptions are the key to learning how to change your own experience in useful ways. For instance, right now notice how you picture a pleasant future event in your own life…and then brighten that picture and notice how your feelings change. When you brighten that picture, do you “look forward” to it more? Most people respond more strongly to a brighter picture; a few respond more to a dimmer picture.

Now take a pleasant memory from your past and literally make the colours stronger and more intense… How does having a “colourful past” change the intensity of your response to that memory? If you don’t notice a difference in your feelings when you make your memory more colourful, try seeing that memory in black and white. As the image loses its colour, typically your response will be weaker.

Another common expression is, “Add a little spark to your life”.  Think of another pleasant experience, and literally sprinkle your image of it with little shining points of sparkling light, and notice how that affects your feeling response. (Television advertisers and designers of sequined clothing know about this one!)

“Put your past behind you”,  is common advice for unpleasant events. Think of a memory that still makes you feel bad, and then notice where you see it now and how far away the picture is. Probably it’s fairly close in front of you. Now take that picture and physically move it far behind you. How does that change how you experience that memory?

These are a few very basic examples of the simplicity and power of the “Sub modalities” patterns or Representational imaging. You can think about any experience using sensory system representations–visual pictures, auditory sounds and kinaesthetic feelings – as practical ways to use this knowledge of modalities to change feelings and behaviour. Sub modalities are the smaller elements within each modality. For example, a few of the visual sub modalities are brightness, colour, size, distance, location, and focus. Knowledge of Sub modalities opens up a whole new realm of change patterns that are even faster and easier than looking at them as the outsider. Not that it should be forgotten, in fact they are there to practise to stop identifying with ego’s stamp on those events that are already discoloured from the onset. But this helps you not to be subconsciously run by them.

The effect it will have can be observed and verified in your own experience with it and in those of others.

Sub modalities are literally the ways that your brains sort and code your experience. The sub modality changed imaging can be used to directly change the human software–the ways we think about and respond to our experiences.

This is the science of changing the way we think. The knowledge behind it is the same as that recognised by the world’s major religions; that our beliefs affect the way we act in the world, and vice versa.  This fundamental truth is recognised and acted upon.

This is to help you to change your beliefs in order to address negative behaviour patterns. For the purposes of this article, a belief is defined as an ingrained thought-complex which serves to limit the way we behave—in either a positive or negative way.

Three types of limiting beliefs:

  • Beliefs about cause.
  • Beliefs about meaning.
  • Beliefs about identity.

Each of these types of belief affects how we view the world. We interpret the data received through our senses and emotions and filter out impressions that do not fit into the basic pattern. Once this fundamental truth is realised, you should have no doubt as to the importance of beliefs. Taken together, our beliefs comprise a composite model of reality—a worldview that affects every single one of our actions.

Once established, beliefs become deeply entrenched and usually operate at a sub-conscious level. As such, belief change is a first step on the road to freedom.

If beliefs affect the way we act in the world, it is equally true that our experience moulds our beliefs, which then influences subsequent actions. For instance, if a negative experience has caused you to dwell upon it, then you will instinctively (ego) seek to recognise other similar experiences which re-affirm your beliefs, and filter out evidence to the contrary.

Objectively, events are neither good, nor bad—they are simply events. It is us who identify positive and negative aspects of events from our own point of view. Focusing on the negative aspects of events creates a filter that recognises only those elements in events that happen subsequently. Once this becomes embedded as a belief, you will begin to attract events to yourself that confirm, rather than challenge your beliefs.

For instance, negative experience in a relationship might lead you to believe that “I have really bad luck in relationships”. From then onwards, you will focus only on the negative aspects of your relationships that confirm what you believe is true, and will seek out partners who conform to this belief. Thus belief influences action and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Altering deeply embedded beliefs is no easy task. Ideally, you should avoid the accumulation of negative beliefs by performing  Content Reframe after any unpleasant event.

When negative beliefs have developed, the first task at hand is to consciously gather evidence counter to what you believe. Staying with my example of relationship patterns, this would involve you looking at all the positive aspects of your relationships, rather than seeking out the negative. What you are aiming for is to formulate a one sentence summary of your new belief, e.g. “I am empowered to have positive, loving, fulfilling relationships”.

The next step is to focus entirely on the new, positive affirmation for around five minutes each day. This should be done in a quiet space away from distractions, and contrary thought should be actively challenged – with all other background thoughts being ignored. Within a few weeks of practice you will have developed a strong mental image of your new belief.

By focusing exclusively on your new “mantra” you will have succeeded in lightly hypnotising yourself. This is a very powerful tool, as during hypnosis many of the external aspects of your personality are temporarily suspended. The new affirmation is therefore embedded directly into your subconscious, the place where belief systems are formulated and buckets are filled.

After around a month of this practice you will begin to see the effects in your everyday life. The more evidence you accumulate that your new belief is correct; the stronger will be the virtuous circle that establishes the new belief in your worldview.

“Whoever guards his mouth and tongue keeps his soul from troubles.”

“Soft words can soften hearts that are harder than rocks. Harsh words harden hearts that are softer than silk.”

Now back to the 3 brains, the purpose of it is to become aware of them so that you may also become aware of the fact that they are also influenced by external impulses other than your usual experiences of daily life and its circumstances, such as the effects of stars and planets (including sun and moon), as some of you are starting to notice a pattern in your daily/hourly mood swings.

The saying goes here too, be in it but not of it. In other words do not identify. This body is a receiver much like a radio, but don’t identify with the static or voice of these low frequencies, that is not to say you can’t hear (be aware of) them or use them, but if you are tuned into the high one you’ll play a beautiful song.



Moshiya van den Broek