People often talk of “gut feelings” or “following your heart”…. Are these just nice phrases or do they really mean something? Is there a mind body and heart connection?
We are very conditioned to live from the head, and to solve all of our problems mentally. The mind is certainly a useful and very complex organ. It can think, process emotions and move our body, but is that all there is to it? Traditional Chinese medicine says that there are three brains… one in the head, one in the heart and one in the belly. Western thought has been very influenced by Descarte’s famous concept: “I think therefore I am”. As if our thoughts are all that we are. After a few hundred years of materialism and reductionist thinking, Western science is starting to wake up to the idea that there is more to us than just our thoughts!
There are Neurons in the heart and belly
- Science now recognises that our heart and belly help with our sense of self and our decision making.
- The heart has 400,000 or almost half a million neurons. Science is finding that these neurons can sense, feel, learn and remember.
- The gut has 200 times this amount: 100 million neurons. These are also involved in our decision making. Additionally the bacteria in the gut have profound effects on our mood and decision making. (See the book “Gut Reaction” by Stanford researchers Justin & Erica Sonnenburg).
- The head only has 1000 times more neurons than the belly: 100 billion. Moreover these are in constant communication with the gut and the heart.
Mind, body and heart connection
The science of the body mind connection is relatively young, but there is a lot of strong evidence that we are much more than just our minds. The prominent neurologist, Antonio Demasio, in his book “Descartes Error” makes a strong case that our sense of self and our decision making happens first on a bodily or somatic level. Next it happens on an emotional level before it ever reaches the cognitive centres of the brain. (This was published in 1994, and his ideas are still current. They have stood the test of time, when the science of neurology is growing rapidly).
For the scientifically minded, there’s more about the science supporting somatic or body based therapy here.
So when we speak of the mind, perhaps it is more accurate to think in terms of “body-mind” as one thing, one organism, rather than a body in service of the important part, the head.
Of course the thinking mind is a very useful tool, but it can become so central that it runs the show, often from a very busy and agitated state. I would suggest that it should be just one part of our make up. Learning to experience life more from the body and the heart is a profoundly different, much more grounded experience.
How to make the shift
Somatic therapiers such as Hakomi and Somatic Experiencing as well as body based practices such as dance, yoga and Tai Chi can help enormously. Just focussing on your felt sense of your body through the day helps tremendously. Try to do at least one thing a day where you are more in your body or your heart than your head. Maybe you’ve known this in sport or in intimate moments with your partner? Try taking that feeling of groundedness into other activities. Over time you will find that your mind, body and heart connection is very natural and feels like second nature.
Personally, I have found that my experience of life used to be very mental. For instance, in conversation my primary focus was thinking about what was being said. Now I find that while of course I still think, my experience is more and more a felt sense of my connection with the other person. This feels like a much richer experience to me. Making the mind, body and heart connection a really valuable experience for me.