The long-held notion of the brains we were born with being primarily located inside our skull is a hypothesis that doesn’t seem to be holding very well at the center these days. Much like intelligence, which science pretty much considered a single entity, until Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner argued for a varied collection, there appear to be as many as seven different brains – count ‘em – that need continual care and feeding.
First of all there’s Paul MacLean’s well-known Triune Brain – The Reptilian Brain (brain stem and cerebellum) – which controls muscles, balance and autonomic functions; the Limbic Brain (amygdala, hypothalamus and hippocampus) is the source for emotions and instincts and assesses all things either good or bad; and the Neocortex (divided into four lobes – frontal, temporal, parietal and occipital) which controls higher-order thinking skills, reason, speech and meta-cognition (Interestingly, the female neocortex contains roughly 19 billion neurons, while the male neocortex contains 23 billion – more possibly required by men to keep them safe on the hunt and competitive in business?).
A Billion Nodes of Light
After these three brains, the gastroenterologist whom I mentioned last week, Michael Gershon, considers the billion enteric neurons located in the gastrointestinal system and capable of operating independently from the Triune brain, a brain in and of itself. Integrating this brain in children I suspect might very well lead to great empowerment. One way to develop this gut brain might be to repeatedly ask two questions over and over again in any variety of guises. These two questions, culled from the work of Patricia Hopkins and Sherry Ruth Anderson in their qualitative research published as The Feminine Face of God, I call the Saint-Making Questions. Each of the “spiritually mature” women Hopkins and Anderson interviewed, asked these questions of themselves over and over again in one form or another. The two questions are: “What’s true for me?” and “What do I want?” These are not easy questions to continually put to ourselves or our children, either as a gut check or as disciplined inquiry, since they invite us to confront “the things that CAN be changed,” and thus no longer allow us to hide from real things that actually need changing. By teaching our children to ask such questions, and supporting them in the answers their seven brains come up with, especially this brain in the GI Tract, I would hypothesize we take great steps in significantly supporting optimal neural integration. Think about it: what might your life be like had coaches, peers, teachers, clergy and parents repeatedly invited you to sincerely consider: What’s true for you? What do you want? Who knows, you might have found early inspiration like Tiger Woods or Dara Torres to begin amassing the 10000 hours required for excellence in a chosen interest.
Next, while his assertions are somewhat anecdotal and theoretical for the most part, in his book The Biology of Transcendence, author Joseph Chilton Pearce considers the growing collection and integration of neurons in our prefrontal cortex to be part of an evolutionary expansion that is currently unfolding. Pearce considers this a separate and independent brain in and of itself, an argument that recent neuroscience research on mindfulness based stress reduction would seem to support. When Buddhist monks’ brains are compared to the general population, there seems to be greater prefrontal development and integration.
In conjunction with ongoing research at the Heartmath Institute in Boulder Creek, California, Pearce next considers the collection of neurons that are located in the heart (the organ in the body that generates the strongest magnetic field – up to 5000 times stronger than the brain itself) to be the most current stop on our neuro-developmental evolutionary journey. Might it be in exemplars like Jesus and Buddha that this neuro-cardio integration (much of which is theoretical and more than a little controversial) has shown up as optimally developed?
So, these can be considered six brains. As for the seventh, I would consider it to be all of those six taken as a whole, sort of like an over-arching, super-connected, meta-brain. And I would suspect that as they become optimally developed and integrated, the whole begins to surpass the sum of its six parts. And as that happens, I would expect the human inhabitants of planet earth (people-sized neuron replicas living in the Earth’s brain? ;-)> ) to become much more connected and integrated as a species.