Provision #747: It’s Not All In Our Heads

Laser Provision

There’s a lot of research and writing these days concerning brain functioning as it relates to human happiness and peak performance. That’s because it’s gotten a whole lot easier in the past two decades, with the advent of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (or fMRI) scanners and other technologies, to actually study the brain as it experiences different internal events. What is happening in the brain, for example, at the moment of insight? What can we learn about the power of focused attention that may inform our approach to coaching and leadership? How does the brain connect with the rest of the body? One thing is clear: the brain is not all in our heads. It’s distributed throughout the body such that we feel things on deep, visceral levels. Sound intriguing? Read on.!

LifeTrek Provision


I know I said I wasn’t going to start another Provision series, while I work on a couple of books, but I thought I might turn Provisions into a kind of literature review that would serve both me and you as I work my way through the material on coaching and leadership. We’ll see how this goes, and I may still revert to my material on Optimal Wellness at some point, but for right now I am intrigued that Provisions will serve me well as a placeholder for the reading I will be doing as part of my writing on the book.

And the area that interests me most right now is the literature on brain functioning as it relates to human happiness and peak performance. With the advent of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (or fMRI) scanners in the early 1990s, neuroscience has been able to make tremendous strides in understanding not only how the brain works but also how to help the brain work better.

That’s the connection that most interests me in my work on coaching and leadership. When my wife, Megan, and I wrote Evocative Coaching, we were aware of this research and we incorporated some of it into the book itself. Given how often people have commented on how interesting and helpful that makes the book, I wish we had done even more to connect the dots between our coaching model and the neuroscientific literature. This Provision series and the two books I am working on will pick up some of that slack.

You may even be able to help me with this project. If you are interested in this line of research yourself, and if you have a favorite article or book, let me know. I will be happy to give it a spin and maybe include a review, along with my remarks, in this Provisions series. That would make this the first co-constructed Provisions series, which sounds like a lot of fun and a lot less work to me.

Ironically, one of you already started to help out in this way, even before the call went out. I spent more than two hours running today, a standard practice of mine on Saturdays, thinking about this Provision. The piece that kept coming back to me, over and over again, was the danger of interpreting fMRI information as though it was all happening in our heads. That’s a byproduct of the Western approach to studying phenomena in discreet units. When we are able to isolate something, like those fMRI scans of the brain, we can lose a sense of connection to the whole.

That’s especially true when it comes to the brain. The bulk of it may be in our heads, and I’m not even sure of that, but it’s certainly not all in our heads. The brain in our heads is but an extension of a nervous system that courses through every cell in our bodies. In some respects, our brains and our bodies are indistinguishable. The flow of information is multidirectional and instantaneous. We are metastatic bundles of energy, and learning how to work with that energy is what coaching and leadership are all about.

Cognitive neuroscience sometimes overlooks this fundamental truth, with its increasingly precise tools for measuring the brain in the head. But the brain goes far deeper than even an fMRI can scan. Several years ago I wrote about our Triune Brain, made famous by Dr. Paul MacLean. This may be far more fundamental than the old notion of left and right brains.

  1. At the top of the evolutionary food chain is the Cerebral Cortex. That is the large, folded grey matter, unique to mammals, that controls cognition, short-term memory, attention, perceptual awareness, thought, language, and consciousness. That part of the brain really is all in our head. The neocortex was the last part of the cerebral cortex to develop, from an evolutionary point of view, and it is what makes us uniquely human because of its size (90% of the cerebral cortex is neocortex in human beings) and functionality. It’s job is to think and to dream
  2. The mid-brain structures that feed information to the cerebral cortex are known as the Limbic System. These structures include the thalamus, hypothalamus, hippocampus, amygdala, and basal ganglia. This part of the brain, also shared with most other mammals, is responsible for emotions, long-term memory, preferences, and even a sense of personal identity. It’s job is to avoid pain and to seek pleasure. And here we get our first taste of the brain outside of the head. All sensory information comes into the brain through the limbic system. When we look into someone’s eyes or whisper into their ears, we really are looking into and stimulating their brains.
  3. At the base of the whole operation is the Reptilian Complex, so named because it is shared with reptiles and most other vertebrates. This complex, which came along first from an evolutionary point of view, includes the brainstem and the cerebellum • but it doesn’t stop there. The reptilian complex includes the spinal cord and the various autonomic nervous systems, including the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for survival with the “fight or flight” response), the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for recovery from the “fight or flight” response), and the enteric nervous system (responsible for digestion and other activities of the gut).

It is a mistake to think of the brain in our head, let alone the neocortex itself, as controlling the whole operation. It just doesn’t work that way. The whole system, from head to toe, is in continuous and instantaneous metastasis. That may sound like an odd word choice, since metastasis is commonly used for cancer when it spreads to other parts of the body. But the root meaning of the word comes from the Greek, meta stasis, or changed state. And that’s the way the brain works: it is constantly processing and shifting different types of information to facilitate survival, satisfaction, and significance.

Those tasks are whole-body experiences, whether we recognize them as such or not. That is why fMRI scans reveal the influence of not only thoughts but also of emotional stimulations and physical sensations. Everyone knows that deep, rhythmic breathing calms the mind, for example. But that’s because the nervous system that controls the lungs is part of the mind. It’s not that the lungs are doing something to the brain in the head. It’s that the lungs are part of the brain in the body. Researchers would do well to conceptualize and study the brain in just that way.

You can imagine my surprise and delight, then, when I got back from my run and found that a friend had sent me a gift through the mail. The occasion, it turns out, was the US holiday of Thanksgiving and the card communicated a beautiful sentiment: “The lives you’ve touched include mine. Thank you.”

The book is titled Peak States of Consciousness, Theory and Applications, Volume 1: Breakthrough Techniques for Exceptional Quality of Life by Grant McFetridge. Now I have not read the book and I am not able to speak to its claims regarding the release of negative emotions as a pathway to healing from past traumas. But given the Provision I was mulling over on my long run, you can imagine why I would turn first to Chapter 5 on the states of consciousness of the Triune Brain. I find these descriptions and comments to be helpful and right on target:

“How does the triune structure of the brain apply to our inner experience? In everyday terms, we know these brains as the ‘mind,’ ‘heart,’ and ‘body.’ Each brain has different biological functions and abilities:

  1. The ‘mind,’ or neocortex, is the part of ourselves we most often think of as who we are. It perceives itself in the head, and it is the part of ourselves that forms judgments, handles short-term memory, and does abstractions like mathematics. One of its primary functions is handling and manipulating audible sounds and language.
  2. The ‘heart’ is the limbic system in the brain, yet perceives itself in the chest, probably because this is the area of its primary biological responsibility and sensory awareness. It allows us to feel emotions, and be either positively or negatively emotionally aware of the presence of others. One of its primary functions is handling visual imagery.
  3. Finally, the ‘body’ consciousness (or ‘hara’ in Japanese) is composed of the tissues at the base of the skull, and probably other distributed systems in our body. It experiences itself in the lower belly, its area of major biological function. This brain gives us a sense of time and our ability to feel sexuality. One of its primary functions is handling physical sensations, and probably scent as well.”

“The most difficult jump in Dr. MacLean’s work is to realize that each of the brains is intelligently, independently self-aware. Because we tend to assume that thinking requires words, it’s difficult for us to realize that each brain actually thinks. In fact, unlike the mind, the heart thinks in sequences of feelings, and the body thinks in gestalt sequences of body sensations (described as the ‘felt sense’ in Eugene Gendlin’sFocusing).”

“Since each brain is so different, we might compare this situation to that of a living stereo system. Imagine if the speakers (mind), tape deck (heart), and receiver (body) were each self-aware, each trying to run the show and puzzled because the other parts won’t do what it wants them to do. It would be hard to imagine how a stereo like this would ever manage to play music! And unfortunately, this is fairly close to the mark.” (pp. 84-85)

From that vantage point, then, we can imagine another sense in which the word metastasis is appropriate: the brain is like a simmer pot with all of its thoughts, feelings, and sensations. It’s not easy to get all those entities on the same page, and many times things break down. Things are forever changing, and not always by design. To quote the early Christian writer, Paul of Tarsus, “I do what I don’t want to do, and I don’t do what I want to do.” We’ve all been there, more than once.

The best brain research helps us to better understand, integrate, and manage our thoughts, feelings, and sensations • our minds, hearts, and bodies • our significance, satisfaction, and survival. My hope is to share some of that research with you in the weeks and months to come. Please remember to send me the best of the best, if you have any favorite articles or books. We’ll be sure to enjoy the process of learning together.

Coaching Inquiries: Which brain are you more aware of right now? Your mind, your heart, or your body? What would help you to integrate those brains into a peaceful and productive whole? How could you develop more cognitive, emotional, and physiological awareness? What would you like to do with that awareness, now that it’s upon you?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.


I like the idea you have for transforming your leadership Provisions into a book. I wish you great courage when you have to re-visit each Provision, and edit for book purposes. The result will be taking something that was really good to start with and making it really great.

I thought of a couple of additions as you requested. How about something concerning “serendipity” or “happy accidents”? These are the times when something valuable happens that can’t really be explained or rationalized as coming for deliberate actions. Maybe this concept is covered in an existing Provision, but if it isn’t, it could be a fun stand alone.


Congratulations on such an excellent series and completing this phase of your process. I love the idea of the book and I think you should keep it all in one book. I like the title, The ABC’s of Leadership, and think it would be great to have it all in one place, sort of like a reference book on leadership quality. I’ve enjoyed reading this series and Appreciate your effort and passion. 


I suggest you consider publishing The ABC’s of Leadership as two books. I look forward to reading the books. Cheers


I must admit first that I have not read all of the Provisions listed, so perhaps this word overlaps in another Provision, but I believe Compassion Matters………..  


May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching Internationalwww.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformationwww.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coachingwww.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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