When there’s a really big decision to be made in my life I often feel like I’m being pulled in multiple directions. My heads telling me to do one thing, my heart something else and my gut likes to add its two cents to the conversation as well.
Needless to say, this makes decision-making more difficult than it already is.
- My head is telling me she’s out of my league and probably already has a boyfriend so why bother.
- My heart says go for it ya fool! She’s smart, sexy, and has her shit together.
- Then my gut chimes in… maybe it’s more of a tightening up and I find myself unable to move.
This little conundrum doesn’t just happen when we’re dealing with the opposite sex or within our personal relationships. It happens on various levels. Your head, heart, and gut might be telling you separate things regarding a big purchase or some other financial decision, or make eating real food and getting consistent exercise all kinds of difficult.
The most successful people in the world are able to unite all three brains for better decision-making, achievement, and leadership. We’ve talked about it before on the site but some folks call this what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi termed the state of “Flow” or being in the zone.
That state of being in which you are acting as your highest self.
So this is what I’m thinking (and I don’t know if this is my brain, heart, or gut talking) if you and I can figure out how to align all three brains and get them to work together I see us making better decisions that leaned to better health, wealth, and personal relationships.
THE THREE BRAINS
Our brains have been evolving for thousands of years and with this so to have our thoughts and emotions. However, our environment is also changing so rapidly it’s tough for our body’s and minds to keep up.
- The foods we eat have changed
- Technology continues to grow at an amazing rate
- The entire work landscape is evolving
- Education is different
- How we interact with others is changing (goodbye letters and phone calls, hello emails and text messages).
As the world around us continues to grow and evolve so too are our bodies but at a much slower pace. Instead of starting with a brand new template to work with our body’s hold on to what it knows has worked in the past.
- The ability to choose the healthy foods and to know when we are full is apart of who we are.
- The desire to interact and communicate with one another is ingrained in us.
- Natural instincts rooted in survival are still there.
It’s just with all that is going on around us we sometimes lose sight of those natural instincts and can become influenced by an overload of information, options, and temptations.
Science has shown us (boooooooooo!) Oh relax you – This will only take a minute.
Let me start again…
Science has shown us that we actually have three brains… sort of. One found in our head, one found in our heart, and the other found in our gut. Each of which has a memory, intelligence, and control over the decisions we make.
These brains have the ability to work together or independently when it comes to helping us make decisions on a daily basis.
Grant Soosalu and Marvin Oka over at trainingmag.com outlined the primary functions of each “brain” beautifully.
YOUR NOODLE: THE HUMAN BRAIN
Is primarily used for cognitive perception and pattern recognition. You use your head for to reason, analysis, andsynthesises information that comes in. One way your head makes meaning of things is through language (verbally, written, body), telling stories and using metaphors.
If you find yourself constantly analyzing things (Bingo!! This is me) you probably use your head to make a lot of your decisions. Think of your head brain as the rational side of you.
This brain also is what holds most out our creativity whether that be in the arts, problem solving, or life in general.
YOUR 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 difference in those values.
YOUR BUDDAH: THE BELLY BRAIN
The feelings you get in your belly extend beyond just hunger. In many cultures, gut feelings are considered a strong source of wisdom, intuitive knowledge, and even “all-knowing.” In Japan, the belly brain is sometimes known as “a seat of wisdom” and even the center of our being.
As defined by Soosalu and Oka the belly 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.
THE GUT AND BRAIN CONNECTION
Our brains have billions and billions of neurons that help to process the nearly 35,000 decisions the average person makes in a given day. Our belly’s also have millions of nerve cells and neurons that can aid in this process.
By sending electrical signals through the vagus nerve and releasing certain chemicals and having them delivered to the brain by blood our belly’s are able to talk with our brain.
We often think of the brain in our heads to be “headquarters.” However, studies are now showing that our belly make also play a big part when it comes to our thoughts, actions, and decision-making. So that strong gut feeling or intuition you sometimes get… or maybe it’s just gas – might be more important than you initially thought.
Recent research has shown us that a huge influence on our emotions is actually found in our belly’s. Nearly 80-95% of the neurotransmitter Serotonin can be found in the gut.
Other things Serotonin has been shown to influence (1):
- And other various bodily functions.
Aside from Serotonin; dopamine which controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centers, norepinephrine which has plays a part in attention, focus, and our fight or flight response are also produced and received in the belly.
Our digestive system also contains cells that help to produce and receive enkephalins and endorphins – Simply put, chemicals that help to produce feelings and emotions like joy, satisfaction, pain, and pleasure. So in essence it’s not just your head and heart that let you know how you’re feeling but your gut too.
Because of poorly manufactured food and its consumption, stress, and toxic environments – the brain in our belly is being damaged daily, making it harder for it to connect with our head to help us make better decisions.
One way to improve gut health and its decision-making is through proper nutrition.
Because you and I chat a lot about Paleo, nutrition, and eating more real food here on the site it should be noted that instead of the brain telling the tummy what to eat, when to eat, and how to eat it is in fact the belly that is telling your brain these things.
This is one reason eating more real food and providing your tummy with healthy bacteria and avoiding the stuff that causes bad bacteria like industrial seed oils is so important.
Studies are now coming out showing that a healthy digestive system free of bad bacteria in children can lead to less anxiety and an increased sense of well-being and happiness in adults. This makes sense because the same active substances that are found in prescription drugs like Valium and Xanax are actually produced in the same chemical form in our guts.
Because the nervous system of the belly is autonomous it is able to work independently of the brain (2) So essentially it has a mind of its own.
THE HEART AND BRAIN CONNECTION
Your heart contains roughly 2 billion muscle cells and thousands of neurons that help it to interact with your noodle. Similar to the belly the heart uses the vagus nerve, spinal cord, and various bodily chemicals.
One chemical in particular that the heart helps to release is oxytocin, commonly know as the love, trust, or well-being hormone. Levels of oxytocin are effected during sex, a simple hug, birth, breast-feeding, or a hand shake.
Our heart helps to form our values or those things most important to us. We often base these things on past experiences, memories, and emotions. When the heart and the head work together both the analytical and emotional sides of us are used to compare current decisions with feelings and experiences from our past.
If we associate negative emotions with past experiences we will usually avoid repeating the same behavior. If positive emotions are associated with an experience we typically will repeat the behavior.
The big problem lies when we imagine outcomes that are highly unlikely like winning the lottery for example. This is known in psychology as the endowment effect. The thought of all the experiences we could have, the purchase we could make, the trips we could take get the best of use and cause our emotions to influence our decisions.
Our emotions can also get the better of us in other ways:
- The blind spot: AKA, “I’d never do that syndrome.” When you see someone else make a poor decisions and let it be know to the world that you’d never do that. Only to do the exact same thing weeks later.
- Confirmation bias: Where we seek out information solely to justify or validate our own opinions. A great example of this when researching diets or nutrition advice. I’m personally biased towards the Paleo approach so when I conduct research I tend to gravitate towards information that validates that nutritional approach (no grains, legumes, or dairy).
- Belief reserverance: Sticking to our guns even tho new information is presented that clearly contradicts it.
Recently, studies are beginning to show that the heart sends signals to the brain may either inhibit or facilitate different thought processes in the brain. What this tells us is that just like the belly the heart has a say in the decisions we make and our overall thought process.
When we get nervous, excited, angry, are infatuated with someone, or consume caffeine and sometimes sugar the electrical switches (AV and SA) that influence our heart beats can be effected causing the heart to flutter. The speed of the heart beat is controlled by the Vagus Nerve, the same thing that helps to deliver messages from the gut to the brain.
We often have a difficult time expressing these messages or our emotions because language is rooted in the human brain while our emotions usually find themselves in our hearts or belly’s. Essentially it seems like they are always working separately of each other.
You can help control the pace of your heart beat or the butterflies in your belly by practicing certain breathing techniques like this.
TYING THIS ALL TOGETHER AND MAKING BETTER DECISIONS
Decision making is frick’n difficult!
And Nutrition is such a great example of this. Most of us already know what to eat – just eat real food right? Yet actually doing it can be so difficult. It’s so easy to tell ourselves not to touch those cookies on the counter table, to avoid the fast food places, and to steer clear of the “fake food.”
But as we’ve touched on before our natural instincts are rooted in survival and safety. Food was scarce so when we were able to eat we took advantage of it. As society keeps evolving cheap, processed, and addictive food is easily accessible while real food is a little tougher to come by.
It’s also so easy to spend money. In seconds and with a click of a button you can have anything you want ordered and delivered to you making saving money that much more difficult.
Even our personal relationships are effected. Technology has created so many ways for us to connect with each other but unfortunately, it’s done so on a far less personal level. As mentioned before there seems to be far less face to face interactions with one another and more Facebook messages, twitter retweets, and Instagram photo likes.
Daniel Kahnemen, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow breaks down decision-making, judgement, choices, and behaviors into two types of operations:
- Automatic (fast): These are most often emotionally charged and automatic. The heart and the gut dominate these.
- Deilberate (slow): Analytical and thought out. The head dominates these. When all three brains are working together and uniting emotion and rationality we tend to make decisions at a slower rate as well.
It’s pretty clear that in today’s society we need to make both automatic (fast) and deliberate (slow) decisions. If you’re crossing the street and a car barring down on you you’ll obviously not want to think too much about what to do. On the other hand the decision to accept a new job or hold onto a particular relationship might be something you want to think about a little more.
To unite the three brains and make better decisions there are a few things you can do:
1- AVOID MAKING DECISIONS UNDER PRESSURE
It’s easier to think things through when in an emotionally neutral state. A know it your but, a rapid heart beat, and a million thoughts running through you’re head make it difficult to clearly process decisions.
Sometimes you’ll have to make choices under pressure but if possible request more time so that you calm down and process information properly. Try taking 5 deep breathes before making a big decision under pressure.
2 – DO SOMETHING ELSE
Preferably something you really enjoy. Go surfing, rock climb, workout, cook, or whatever you like to do. Let your mind focus on something else for a little while.
3 – REVIST YOUR PAST
There’s a good chance you’ve already had similar experiences based on the choices you’re having to make now. What was your experience like then?
4 – USE THE WRAP TECHNIQUE
In their book Decisive, Dan and Chip Heath outline a super cool formula that we can all use to unite our three brains and begin to make better decisions.
W: Widen your options by evaluating the opportunity costs such as money, time, or even your values.
R: Reality test the decision you’re making by considering the complete opposite. Also, think about the biggest obstacle standing in your way.
A: Attain distance before making any decisions. Remove yourself from any environments that may influence your decisions. What are the long-term and short-term implications based on possible choices (consider the worst case scenario but also what is most likely to happen)?
If you’re best friend came to you with this decisions what advice would you give to them? Most of us hate letting other people down but are ok with letting ourselves down from time to time. If you’re not in a HELL YES or HELL NO mindset how can you get there?
P: Prepare to be wrong. What are common problems that others are facing when trying to make this decision? What are the implications of being entirely wrong (they usually aren’t that bad). We tend to think of outlandish possibilities and scenarios that are highly unlikely, watch for this.
Are you making choices based on what is most important RIGHT NOW?
Do you tend to think more with your head, heart, or gut?
Do you tend to use different brains for different types of decisions?
I’d love to hear from you in the comments or a personal email.