Daniel Goleman: The Brain Science Behind Gut Decisions

What parts of the brain are activated when we make a gut decision?

Dr. Dan Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, explained the complex process of how our minds and bodies formulate and respond to a hunch for my video series Leadership: A Master Class.

“There are networks of neurons that serve as information processors. They’re like little computers arranged in a spider web-like network called a parallel distributed processor. Unlike the linear computers we have, these parallel processors can actually learn and think.

We have this spider web-like set of connections in our skull, which we usually refer to as the brain. But we also have neural net processors around the heart and intestines that process information in very complex ways.

These information processors of the internal organs of the body, called viscera, are not rational or logical. But it is processing information and sending signals up from the body itself, to the spinal cord in a layer called Lamina I.

Lamina I carries the information from the intestines, heart, muscles and bones upward from the spinal cord. As it comes up, part of it goes to the deepest part of the brain called the brainstem, which influences our heart rate and respiration.

Also a twig of it will go over to an area called the hypothalamus, where it will govern what to do with our endocrine system, and influence your hormonal environment.

Another branch goes to an area called the prefrontal cortex. There are two aspects of the prefrontal cortex that Lamina I data from the body receives. One twig is called the insula. It’s a part of what some people called the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex.

The other part goes over to the anterior cingulate. It’s like a loop that goes frontward and backward. The anterior is the front part of that loop. What’s fascinating is people who are aware of their interior, called interoception, or perception of the interior, are people who are more empathic.

People who have more interoceptive ability have greater activity of the right insula, which makes them more self-aware, at least of emotions. One view of emotions is that they’re generated from what are called subcortical areas. The cortex is the higher part of the brain. Beneath the cortex are the limbic area, the brainstem, and the body proper.

The subcortical area mixes together and forms states of affective tone, which you could call emotion. They are driven upward through the insula to the cortex where we become aware of it.

When you’re self-aware, you get a gut feeling. You have a heartfelt sense. Sometimes those feelings are really important. There’s wisdom in the body. Yet sometimes, if we have been traumatized, for example, the gut feeling we get can lead us astray.

If you’ve been bitten by a dog or hurt by someone who had red hair, when you see a dog or a person with red hair, your gut may say “bad, bad, bad”, and may create a tone of negativity that is based on past traumatic experience. So bodily input doesn’t always mean you should respond to it directly. You should analyze it.”

Learn more about The Leader’s Mind with Dr. Siegel in my video series Leadership: A Master Class.

Other resources:

Training the Brain: Cultivating Emotional Intelligence

What Makes a Leader: Why Emotional Intelligence Matters

Cultivating Focus: Techniques for Excellence

Follow @DanielGolemanEI on Twitter for helpful articles, podcasts and videos.

Join the conversation about effective leadership traits on LinkedIn.

Image credit: GrandeDuc/shutterstock