People may have advised you to ‘follow your heart’ or ‘go with your gut feeling’ in those situations where thinking it through rationally, or listing the pros and cons of a decision, does not give you a satisfactory answer.
It turns out that the wisdom of the heart (and of the gut) is more than just a metaphor. What follows is some information about the wonders of our heart and gut intelligences, and a process that you can use to access these intelligences to supplement the brain-based thinking that you’re used to.
Traditionally, the heart has been associated with “feeling qualities” such as care, love, wisdom, intuition, understanding, security, and appreciation. It has also been seen as the seat of the “relational self” – self in relation to others.
The new discipline of neurocardiology tells us that the heart has its own “brain” – a plexus of 40,000 neurons which can feel, learn and act independently of the brain in the head.
Four ways in which the heart communicates with the brain:
Neurologically, via the vagus and sympathetic afferent nerves. The heart’s signals have a regulatory influence on the autonomic nervous system and the higher centres of the brain including the cortex and the amygdala.
Biochemically. The heart secretes a hormone called ANF or atrial peptide which regulates blood pressure and body-fluid retention, and also inhibits stress hormones and may influence the immune system. The heart also produces noradrenaline and dopamine, neurotransmitters involved in mediating emotion that were formerly thought to be produced only in the brain.
Biophysically. Every beat of the heart generates a powerful blood pressure wave that influences the brain’s electrical activity.
Energetically. The heart’s electromagnetic field is the most powerful produced by the body. It can be measured up to ten feet away. Some researchers propose that this electromagnetic field affects not only the brain and emotions, but can affect other people in close proximity.
Emotional states are reflected in the heart’s rhythms. Negative emotions produce more jagged heart rate variability (HRV) patterns than positive ones.
The effect works both ways. The heart is the strongest biological oscillator in the human system. The rest of the body’s systems are pulled into entrainment with the heart’s rhythms. When the brain is entrained with the heart rhythms, subjects report increased intuitive clarity and sense of well-being.
Information from Doc Childre and Howard Martin, The HeartMath® Solution.
Body or ‘gut’ Intelligence
In the human embryo the original ‘neural crest’ separates into the brain and another section which migrates down into the abdomen. Later the two systems become connected via the vagus nerve. The abdominal ‘brain’ has about 100m neurones. The area below the navel – the hara (Japanese) or tan tien (Chinese) is associated with courage, feeling grounded and centred, sense of self in the body, and also with sex, desire, and action. The digestive system is also known to produce neuro-peptides which influence the brain.
Accessing Heart and Gut Intelligence
This is an exercise you can use by yourself or teach to clients. You can use it whenever you feel overwhelmed by a stressful feelings or can find no solution to a problem using conscious reasoning.
If you do use it with clients, do a lot of preframing around the traditional role of the heart as the seat of love and compassion, to avoid the client coming up with thoughts such as “I’m heartbroken” or “I hate him with all my heart”. If appropriate, tell them about the heart’s “brain” and its influence on the brain and the rest of the body.
- Notice how you feel about the problem, dilemma, or stressful situation.
- Float up above the situation, however you are representing it.
- Place your hand over your heart. Imagine you are breathing into the heart area. Associate into core heart feelings of love, care and compassion. Take as long as you need, until you feel a shift.(Optional) If necessary, recall a positive experience associated with these core heart feelings, or fire a previously-established anchor.
- Ask your heart, “What’s the one question I need to ask in order to move beyond this problem?” and notice the answer.
- Notice how you feel about the situation now.
- Associate into the hara area by placing your hand below the navel. Imagine you are breathing into this area until you feel centred, grounded and strong. Again, notice how you feel about the situation now.
- Ask your hara, “What else do I need to ask in order to move beyond this problem?” and notice the answer.
- Move out into the future, beyond the solution to the problem. Ask your unconscious mind to store the positive learnings so they are always there for you in the future.
This process is a refinement of the “FREEZE-FRAME” technique in Doc Childre and Howard Martin, The HeartMath® Solution, combined with elements from the ‘Physiological Triple Description’ process outlined by Keith Trickey in Anchor Point, September 1999.
For ways to access the creative imagination of groups and get past the boundaries of conventional thinking in team and work situations, check out the two-day Practical Appreciative Inquiry facilitator training.