We approach decisions from one of three places: our head, our heart, or our gut. And while we are prone to believe that our particular way of making judgments is the best way, science (and experience) shows that each has its benefits and flaws.
In order to make the best decisions possible, then, we must not only be aware of our personal biases but also be able to cultivate our lesser-used senses. Optimal decision-making happens when we are able to activate not just one, or two, but all three of our body’s powerful thought systems. But how do we do this?
Your 3 Brains
Neuroscience (the study of our brains) continues to fascinate researchers who examine the approximately 10 billion neurons and 10 trillion synapses that control our reactions to situations and shape our identities as humans. And while much of how our brains work still remains a mystery, scientists have made fascinating discoveries about how other parts of our bodies help us think.
Neurocardiologists have found that the heart has a complex neural network that can be characterized as a brain on the heart. The heart-brain, as it is commonly called, is an intricate network of complex ganglia, neurotransmitters, proteins and support cells, the same as those of the brain in the head. The heart-brain’s neural circuitry enables it to act independently of the cranial brain to learn, remember, make decisions and even feel and sense.
Hidden in the walls of the digestive system is the “brain in your gut”, called the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS is two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining your gastrointestinal tract from esophagus to rectum. Jay Pasricha, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology, says “The enteric nervous system doesn’t seem capable of thought as we know it, but it communicates back and forth with our big brain—with profound results.”
All three of our bodies’ “brains” are constantly at work, but we tend to rely on only one at a time. Try this 3-step process to tap into the wisdom of all 3 brains and improve your decision-making ability.
First, Know Yourself
In order to build strength, we have to be honest about our starting place. Which of the following ways do you tend to make decisions?
Thinking with Your Head
Head-driven leaders make decisions based on carefully collected data, thorough analysis, and cost-benefit comparisons. These leaders prefer to rely on the facts and are able to maintain a highly objective position from which they can select the best route based on details and information.
Coming from Your Heart
Heart-driven leaders, on the other hand, depend on their emotions to direct outcomes. These leaders are highly in tune with the thoughts and feelings of themselves, their teams, and their customers and make decisions that will bring the highest degree of satisfaction to all parties.
Going with the Gut
Leaders who think with their guts trust their intuition above everything else. They make decisions from a more abstract sense of the situation, rather than tangible evidence or deep emotion. These leaders often cannot explain why they moved in a certain direction, beyond a hunch they felt compelled to follow.
Which part of your body guides your decisions – your head, heart, or gut? Here’s a quick check to find out.
Think of the last 3 important decisions you made.
- Did you find yourself focusing more on your thoughts, your feelings, or your intuition as you weighed your options?
- If someone asked you why you made the choices you did, what evidence would you provide: data (including past experiences), emotion (how the decision affected you), or something more philosophical (less concrete)?
Now, Strengthen Your Position
Once you have recognized your default decision-making process, find ways to make it stronger.
- For example, if you tend to lead with your head, be sure to collect information from a variety of sources so that you get a more complete picture. Trust your mind to analyze, but don’t limit yourself by gathering one-dimensional data.
- If you are a heart-centered leader, don’t assume that you know how others feel; instead, ask for feedback from those involved (and believe their responses). Be sure to take care of your own emotions in the process; don’t let feelings of guilt or overwhelm influence your decision.
- If you follow your gut, take time to pause and check your first instincts. Give yourself at least 24 hours between your initial response and your final decision to make sure no new inclinations arise.
Finally, Expand Your Perspective
Remember that neurotransmitters exist not just in our brain but in our hearts and guts as well. So we vastly miss out on the wisdom of our 3 brains when we make decisions using only one of them.
Try experimenting to include one of the other perspectives in decision-making.
- To explore using your headspace more, let your curiosity drive you. Ask more questions. Dig deeper into what is first presented to you.
- To explore your heartspace more, make room for compassion. Pay attention to the feelings that arise around a potential decision. Give weight to the emotions rather than write them off as irrational.
- To explore using your gut brain, summon up your courage. Because this is the most abstract space, it can feel risky to rely on it. Give yourself permission to trust instinct alongside facts or feelings.
One Step At A Time
We make a million decisions every day that don’t require this much work! But when you are building a team, scaling up your business, or innovating in your field, the best decisions are made with your entire body, not just one part.
So before you take your next leap, take an honest look at yourself and ask –
- Am I a head, heart, or gut leader?
- Am I maximizing this strength to its fullest potential?
- Am I able to explore other ways of making decisions?