The Gut Brain and how to use Intuition (Part One)

This is an extract from the Book – The Winning Way, Lessons from Super Performing South African Companies – by Jonathan Ball and Stephen Ashbury, published in 1989.

Way back in the 1980’s, when I was in marketing, I knew about the gut and intuition.

I did not then know that the gut was a brain, but I did understand instinct, insight, and trusting that inner knowing feeling.

So, what is the gut brain?

And what about the heart and the head brain?

How do these brains work together?

For thousands of years, ancient wisdom from the Taoist philosophies to the Sufi mystics, and so many cultures in between, have spoken about the three centres of intelligence of head, heart and gut.

Science, neuroscience, neurochemistry and Multiple Brain Integration (mBIT), have done so much research into the brain and have highlighted that we can access the wisdom of our head, our heart and our gut. They have identified that there are complex neuro networks in each of the three identified brains and that the heart and gut function in the same way as our head brain.

Simply put, a brain consists of sensory and motor neurons, ganglia, neurotransmitters, neural cells and support cells.

These structures exist in the heart and gut as well.

  • The head has over 100 billion neurons
  • The heart has between 40000 and 120000 sensory neurons
  • The gut has over 500 million neurons

Wisdom of the 6 Brains

The late Judith E. Glaser, founder of Conversation Intelligence®, identified the 6 brains that we utilise every day of our lives.

Conversational Intelligence® for Coaches
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Primitive Brain (Reptilian Brain–sensor to threats)

  • The most primitive part of the brain, hardwired to protect us from harm to our body/ego.
  • Decides how we react to threat (‘flight, fight, freeze and appease’) & protects ourselves from harm.

Heart Brain (The most basic of our hardwiring)

  • Enables us to connect all our internal systems and also enables us to connect to others
    • We either sync or do not sync with others.
    • When we sync we move towards others as friends.
    • When we do not sync or feel apprehension, we move away & feel others may be foe.

Limbic Brain

  • Stores a history of all emotional experiences
  • Nurtures and builds relationships, clans and tribes.
    • Deciphers ‘where do I fit’ in the social order.
    • Reads social context including loss and gain socially, and scans for inclusion and exclusion in the community.
    • Provides us with the emotional palette for moving towards or away from others.


  • Hardwired for language, storing information, basic thinking, reasoning, and cognitive skills that enable us to navigate every day
  • Holds our ‘scripts,’ our working memory & our stored memory.
    • Newest research says that the left-brain is the ‘steady state brain’ & the right brain is the ‘change brain’.

Prefrontal Cortex (The youngest brain & is often called the ‘Executive Brain’)

  • Hardwired for higher-level coordination of the whole brain.
  • Provides us mastery with higher functions such as: ability to envision the future (create scenarios), step into others’ shoes (empathy, mirror neurons), make judgments in difficult situations, live in trust & have integrity.
  • Holds our most advanced capabilities: judging, dreaming, and envisioning possibilities.


  • The gut brain is revolutionizing medicine’s understanding of the links between digestion, mood, health and even the way you think. Scientists call this little brain the enteric nervous system (ENS).
  • Stress is correlated to the lack of biodiversity in the gut flora. Gut flora singularity also heightens the stress response.
  • 90% of the body’s serotonin is located in the EC [enterochromaffin] cells of the GI tract, where they regulate intestinal movements. This neurotransmitter helps regulate mood, appetite, and sleep. Serotonin also plays a role in cognition, specifically in learning and memory.

The Language of our Brains 

You may have said some of these yourself or heard someone say the following which are neuro-linguistic examples from common language:

Heart Brain Language

  • “Put your heart at rest” (peace)
  • “My heart was filled with hope” [hope] 
  • “She lost heart” (despair)
  • “It made my heart sing” (joy)
  • “She spoke from the heart” (trust/honesty)
  • “Our hearts were like one” (connection)
  • “We had a heart to heart talk” [connection] 
  • “With heartfelt appreciation” [appreciation/gratitude] 
  • “She is soft-hearted” (compassion)
  • “My heart goes out to you” (compassion)
  • “A heart burning with love and desire” [love]
  • “I’ll always hold her close in my heart” [love]
  • “Let your heart be your guide” / “Follow your heart” [emotional truth/wisdom]
  • “Follow your heart’s desires” [passion/dreams/values] 
  • “It was my heart’s dream” (passion/dreams/values)

Gut Brain Language

  •  “I hunger for that” [hunger/compulsion]
  • “I find that disgusting behaviour” [disgust]
  • “I have a fire in my belly for action” [action/gut motivation]
  • “I’m hungry for success” (action/gut motivation)
  • “He had the intestinal fortitude needed for the job” [will-power] 
  • “It was a gutsy move” (courage)
  • “There was a peace deep in my gut” [relaxed/calm] 
  • “I had a calm feeling in my gut” [relaxed/calm] 
  • “I have a healthy appetite for life” [well-being] 
  • “Deep in my guts it felt right” [gut intuition/wisdom] 
  • “You need to trust your gut instinct” [gut intuition/wisdom] 
  • “Listen to the inner voice of your gut” [gut intuition/wisdom]
  • “I had butterflies in my tummy” [nervousness/fear]
  • “It really took a lot of guts to do that” [courage] 

Head Brain Language

  • “Use your head and be more logical will you” [logic/cognition] 
  • “We put our heads together and did some original thinking” [creativity] 
  • “I need to wrap my head around it” [meta cognition] 
  • “I was lost in my imagination” [flow] 
  • “I looked at it from both sides” [balanced perspective] 
  • “My mind is filled with curiosity” [curiosity] 
  • “Learning has given me a head start in life” [generative learning]”

(from “mBraining – Using your multiple brains to do cool stuff” by Grant Soosalu, Marvin Oka)

In the next article we will delve deeper into the three intelligences and how we can use each of the brains and language to improve our leadership capabilities.

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