Alignment: Head, Heart, and Gut
We are beings of embodied cognition. We are most effective and at our best when our cognition, emotion, and intuition are aligned.
There is a certain left-brained, science type who will bristle at the following. He will demand scientific evidence and empirical studies for what is otherwise a simple, ancient distinction—a framework to organize complex human motivations. To such a reader, thank you for making my point for me. There might well be evidence for this tripartite framework. But to find it is not the point. One might refer to Kahnemann’s Systems One and Two or Haidt’s Elephant and Rider. Then he’ll pounce with, Ah ha, there are but two! Another might appeal to the work of Iain McGilchrist, to which a skeptic will argue that Sperry’s left and right brains are just myths! I kindly request, Dear Reader, that you not place so heavy a burden on this rather intuitive threefold distinction. Consider it an intuitive scaffolding to organize human drivers according to core modalities. Be pragmatic. Appeal to common sense. And get yourself aligned. -MB
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
—attributed to Ernest Hemingway
Beginning, middle, and end. Such is the architecture of a story and, indeed, of life. Humans orient themselves in time using past, present, and future. And though the triune God of Christianity has divine aspects in the Heavenly Father, the Incarnate Son, and the Holy Spirit, the spiritual significance of three is evident in nearly every culture.
Indeed, there are three yogas in the Vedic tradition: Jnana, Bhakti, and Karma. These are the paths of devotion, knowledge, devotion, and action, respectively. Perhaps unwittingly, the Greco-Armenian mystic George Gurdjieff helped build an entire triadic typology atop this fundamental three in the Enneagram, which gives rise to nine types.
But at its foundation, it is still head, heart, and gut.
That sacred three exists within each of us, too. Call them the Three Governors. Typically, each person has a primary:
People of the head are thinkers who focus primarily on gaining and sharing knowledge.
People of the heart are relaters who deal mainly in relationships and emotions.
People of the gut are movers who are motivated to act or lead.
If we are to achieve flourishing, we need them all. The way to wisdom involves disciplining oneself to access the secondary and tertiary Governors and to braid them. The way to success involves working with others with a different primary Governor, as we’ll see.
Before dismissing these insights as artifacts of old religions, we should take the time to appreciate their power. After all, Decentralism involves empowering people to make good decisions and collaborate more readily. When it comes to making decisions or working collaboratively, aligning the Three Governors is essential to the Decentralist project.
Cognition. If you suspect your primary Governor is the head, ask yourself what your process is when you decide. Do you tend to observe and analyze? Do you form a hypothesis in your mind and turn it over to decide on a course of action? If so, your primary Governor is probably the head. It might even strike you as odd that there would be any other Governor for making decisions. After all, reason and rationality developed in the neocortex for humans, a center situated squarely within the skull at the front of the brain.
But reason and rationality alone won’t cut it. In the famous case of Elliot, physicians removed a brain tumor that severed the connection between his reasoning brain (frontal lobe) and earlier-evolved modules. During recovery, people close to Elliot thought the patient was no longer himself. He became distracted and indecisive, sometimes analyzing the simplest tasks for hours. In short, he could no longer make decisions effectively—or, better, affectively. While most of us are raised to think it’s best for us to make decisions in moments of dispassion and calm reflection, we cannot separate how it feels to decide, which involves our other Governors.
Likewise, though brain scans revealed isolated damage to the ventromedial portion of Elliot’s frontal lobe, he fared well on IQ, memory, and language tests. The problem lay with his emotions. In short, when viewing emotionally charged images, Elliot felt nothing. Neuroscientists now understand a critical intimacy between one’s frontal lobe and, say, the limbic system. So many of our emotional responses depend on our limbic brain, which helped our forebears survive in dangerous circumstances. But we don’t need neuroscientists to prove it. We know—phenomenologically—that there is a relationship between decisions and desires, for example.
Emotion. People whose primary Governor is heart will often be attuned to their emotions and that of others. They tend to be good at building and maintaining relationships because this attunement allows them to see how diverse people might connect or how they might clash. While heart types tend to be concerned with how people perceive them, sometimes overly so, their image consciousness can also be a boon to their careers or friendships. Some in this group become super connectors who help complementaries find one another.
There is, of course, a complex interplay between our brains and bodies when we experience emotions.
Indeed, there is a strange relationship between our mental lives and our physical bodies. Even something as simple as a pain in one’s arm will have a corresponding neural firing pattern in her head, which can be tracked using brain imaging. It appears our brains are evolved to represent features of the world or damage to our bodies, but our bodies are evolved to represent our emotions, as well.
Have you ever been heartbroken? If you’ve had to endure a romantic breakup, you might be familiar with what neuroscientist Antonio Damasio refers to as a somatic marker. That means the locus of emotional distress feels quite literally as if it is in your chest. Likewise, it’s common for people to pull their hands close to their chests when they experience positive emotions, such as romance or baby cuteness.
Whatever the mysteries of consciousness, our feelings process vital information that we ignore at our peril. Sometimes, a decision feels right, even if we can’t articulate its justification using our forebrains. There are times when we feel anxious, depressed, or uneasy for no apparent reason. Our feeling Governor is almost always trying to tell us to look more closely at our circumstances to see if something is wrong. In these cases, it’s essential to listen to one’s heart before repressing emotions or turning to pharmaceutical intervention. Here again, humans have a somatic sensor-motivator system that is grokked phenomenologically. Of course, it is not the source of all truth. It is rather an important vector of embodied cognition.
The key, of course, is not to let the heart Governor exclude or override the other Governors from the decision-making process. Those who do will act out behaviors that resemble those of lower primates. Crimes of passion, for example, originate from failures to gain input from the gubernatorial committee. So, even though our emotional center has much to contribute, we must be prepared to include our cognition and intuition, as well.
Intuition. Those whose primary Governor is the gut are about getting things done. They are leading the charge when they’re at their best, but they can execute in the manner of ready-shoot-aim when at their worst. Some might describe the gut type as bold or brash, but she tends not to hesitate, and one might find her out front taking action. She knows how to trust her instincts.
The gut Governor is instinctual energy but expresses itself more as intuition than emotion. Remember that we cautioned against letting our emotions burn out of control, as can happen with animals. Such is true for instincts, too. At the same time, animals ‘know’ things we do not, though we wouldn’t exactly call that faculty higher cognition. Such accounts for when dogs bark at a distant stranger we haven’t yet noticed or when forest animals run away from a terrible storm before we have seen the leaves’ undersides. When we speak of gut instinct, there are people in whom that force is more potent.
Those whose primary Governor is the gut can be intimidating. They’ll employ what seems to be an inner power or sheer will to drive their behavior exactly where they want to be in life. This can come across to others as an excessive desire for control, and frequently it is. Gut types can respond to a perceived loss of control with frustration and anger, which can take over and cause chaos because they do not think before acting. Again, this is where the other members of the gubernatorial committee (mind and heart) can help.
As mentioned above, there are two forms of alignment. The first is internal alignment, in which one practices tapping into the other Governors so as to weave that threefold braid before taking action. The second is discovering alignment among people who have different primary Governors. Both forms are critical to thriving in the Age of Complexity. Indeed, the Decentralist understands she must adjust as she adapts to waning centralization and waxing decentralization.
For example, decentralization amounts to more localization of decision-making authority. As more and more spheres of life require our input or action, positive feedback loops, good and bad, will require our attention. Attention implies agency. In other words, as more decisions are not being made on our behalf, we must train up our sovereignty to face those decisions. That is why it bears repeating: Freedom and responsibility are two sides of the same coin.
If decentralization means more localization, there will be more experimentation and organization. Entrepreneurship, which requires people to come together in service of a mission, requires cooperation. It’s tempting for so-called ‘like minds’ to come together for some venture, but this is usually a mistake, at least as it applies to the Governors. Organizations need people with different foundational energies and ways of perceiving the world. Why not birds of a feather? One might be tempted to organize as like-minded individuals, but that could be an error. Three mind types can suffer from analysis paralysis. Three heart types can fail due to unprofitable generosity. And three gut types can be rash or competitive. You are almost always better off founding a complementary team that weaves head, heart, and gut energies into a more resilient braid.
The mode and manner of effective communication require attention to the Three Governors, too. Consider the following three presentations as different accounts of a single event:
Facts. On August 6, 1945, 129,000 people died after an atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima.
Feelings. Yoshi returned to the village to find his wife, Himari, blistered and sick. Charred debris was all that was left of his home. “You have always been my—” she muttered, but Himari could not finish before expiring in his arms.
Actions. Yoshi’s home was destroyed, so he’s going to need somewhere to stay while he grieves. Maybe someone can take him to the intact village nearby where his brother lives to help him with arrangements.
It should be obvious that in one instance, we get the facts in the abstract; in another, we get a scene that should elicit some empathic response; and in the remaining presentation, we get clear calls to action. Effective communicators might combine these presentations into a gestalt that allows us to represent the event humanely and holistically.
Some masters communicate with great concision to our head, heart, and gut. Hemingway’s shortest story in the epigraph might be considered a meme. Its power comes in its appeal to all Three Governors.
One suspects that is precisely how to communicate with moral suasion, too. In fact, moral philosophers who argue their work is just applied Reason are kidding themselves. Put another way, it might be close to such—a series of logical notations and abstracted thought experiments. But that is boring and rhetorically inert. One can no more assert the rightness or wrongness of some action without the heart and gut, as Elliot can make a decision about what music to play. We are creatures of embodied cognition. And we were forged in evolutionary fires over millions of years.
If we are to govern ourselves better, the goal is not to deny any of the three Governors but rather to ensure that each has a seat at the table.
Postscript: In light of the foregoing, consider the following from economist-thinker Arnold Kling. He uses an AI essay grader to show just how dispassionate and reasonable his essays are compared with those of arch-conservative Victor Davis Hanson. Kling makes an A. Hanson, not so much. Kling concludes: “Those of you who are familiar with his op-eds know that he is an articulate spokesman for the conservative point of view. But by my standards, he does poorly, because he uses heavy-handed rhetoric and does not attempt to engage in the best arguments for the other side. In terms of my three-axes model, he speaks in a civilization-vs.-barbarism monotone. There is no chance that this sort of essay will change anyone’s mind.” Kling might have a point. But what might he be missing? (After ChatGPT is prefrontal cortex of digital steroids.)