The Heart, the Brain, and the Herd

Have you ever walked into a room full of people and felt really uncomfortable yet couldn’t pinpoint why? Or have you had the experience of joining a group where the feeling was positive and welcoming and you immediately became infected by an ineffable sense of well-being. If you have experienced either of these situations you have encountered what psychologists refer to as an affective state, or a state of awareness that may be pre-cognitive. When something is pre-cognitive it means that information is being perceived, shared, and processed unconsciously and is not yet available to our cognitive or conscious thinking functions. In essence you are having a shared experience, being a part of a collective, being one with the herd, the flock, the school, or the tribe. Sometimes it is pleasant and other times it is uncomfortable.

While scientists are pursuing studies on topics associated with perception and neuroscience, we mere mortals often continue to struggle with some of our affective perceptions, especially in the workplace. Sometimes we are conscious of these feelings and we might refer to them as a “hunch”, “gut feeling”, “intuition”, or we might try to ignore them altogether because we can’t classify them, rationalize them, or make logical use of them.

We humans have evolved a significantly different skillset from other mammals – that of verbal language. It may be that this higher order communication skill comes with a cost – that of a loss of awareness of the information sharing that occurs through non-verbal means. Another cost is possibly the false bias that we are rational beings that experience emotions instead of the fact that we are emotional beings that are capable of rational thought.

In the 21st century, we seem to be driven and constrained by the profoundly limiting and inaccurate belief that logic rules all. Carlos Casteneda said “the greatest flaw of human beings is to remain glued to the inventory of reason.” In fact, research increasingly is demonstrating this limitation. For example, recent research into decision-making shows that the brain’s executive function is the last part of our being to ‘know’ about our choice. We believe we are making rational and reasoned deliberations that will draw us to a logical conclusion but apparently we actually are coming with up a rationalization for something that occurred in the dark unknowable reaches of our unconscious.

My interest in the phenomena of unconscious knowing, intuition, or the concept of extended mind was re-ignited when I began to play with and learn from horses. When, in working with horses, I started to have regular experiences of synchronicity and a powerful reconnection to my intuition I became curious as to what was going on and wanted to understand and know how to articulate what I was experiencing. For example, the more aware I became of my internal state when I was with the horses, the more this awareness became a part of my daily experience. As this awareness increased I became more in touch with my inner voice – a voice that had been banished to the background when I became a young single mother. Back in those days I was concerned with making a living and I pushed the wants and desires articulated by that small inner voice into the background in favour of making practical choices that would ensure I could put food on the table and keep a roof overhead. The result was that I lost the sense of being the Subject Matter Expert of my own life. Too often I was unsure of the right thing to do and yet, somehow, I knew I should be able to have greater certainty about the choices I was making. In essence I was not in touch with my ‘gut feelings’; I was not ‘following my heart’.

Recently I was drawn back to the HeartMath Insitiute website and was rereading research on the ways that the human body emits energy and processes information internally and with others beings. It appears we have more than one brain and that the ways in which we communicate internally and externally are many – electro-magnetically as well as chemically. What we refer to as “gut instinct” likely has a biological basis and that our emotions are much more powerful channels of communication than we tend to credit. Apparently we have a heart brain and a stomach brain that communicates with our other head brain and the complex interactions between these brains show that the head is very much affected by the heart and stomach.

“The latest research in neuroscience confirms that emotion and cognition can best be thought of as separate but interacting functions or systems, each with its unique intelligence. Our research is showing that the key to the successful integration of the mind and emotions lies in increasing the coherence (ordered, harmonious function) in both systems and bringing them into phase with one another. … Emotions can easily bump mundane events out of awareness, but non-emotional forms of mental activity (like thoughts) do not so readily displace emotions from the mental landscape.”  Retrieved from http://www.heartmath.org/?page=http://www.heartmath.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=20&Itemid=2

Apparently not only does our heart (and emotional state) have an impact on our brains but our heart’s electromagnetic field extends in all directions around our bodies in a measureable way and can affect others around us. This communication is two-way; we can and do detect the emotional states of those around us. Just like birds in a flock, fish in a school, or horses in a herd, we humans do communicate our emotional states to each other and, interestingly, to other non-human creatures.

I have seen this in action so often with horses. I was picking a paddock a few years ago. The horse whose paddock it was had recently moved into the facility.  Phantom was quite high strung and unused to the routines and activities on the property and neighbouring areas. Suddenly on the adjoining acreage another horse started acting up, bucking and kicking and galloping to and fro. Phantom immediately responded in kind, racing in and out of his stall, head high and breathing fast. He had instantaneously picked up the affect from the other horse. I acted on a gut instinct, ‘deciding’ to use the power of the herd dynamic. I calmly put aside my tools and wandered over to the fence, casually positioning myself between Phantom and the other animal. Within 15 seconds Phantom read my affect, relaxed, and went back to a neutral emotional state, now merely curious about what was going on in the adjoining field. In less than a few minutes we three mammals had shared an experience that was non-verbal, highly emotional, and very dramatic. From a rational perspective ‘nothing’ really happened. However, on an emotional level, Phantom had the opportunity to see me as a leader or protector. My actions changed the way he perceived me. I moved up the hierarchy in his herd.  It was a great analogy for daily life at the office. I wish I could be such a calm collected leader under all conditions.

According to the HeartMath research, when our hearts, stomachs, and brains are in a ‘coherent state’ our performance improves.   “In states of psychophysiological coherence, there is increased synchronization and harmony between the cognitive, emotional and physiological systems, resulting in efficient and harmonious functioning of the whole.” “This state is associated with sustained positive emotion and a high degree of mental and emotional stability.”   Retrieved from http://www.heartmath.org/index.php?tmpl=component&option=com_content&id=596

I guess what I am  trying to say here is that as a result of the time I have spent exercising my non-verbal communication skills with horses, I think I am improving my overall well-being and emotional intelligence. I am certainly more aware of the emotional states of those around me, even when I am not sure what is going on with people due to their masking or non-congruent messaging. Being more aware of the power of affect has enabled me to have greater insight into the behavior of others individually and in groups; I think I am able to make better choices – even if, or especially because, these choices are actually not rationally deduced. I think this also explains why my clients all report increased insight and awareness as a result of equine facilitated coaching sessions. I don’t have research to back up these assertions but sometimes anecdotal evidence is good enough.