Beyond the “skull-based brain”

I’ve been watching the videos of Dr. Dan Siegel, over the past couple of weeks, and he’s really got me thinking. He talks about “the embodied brain” — the physical experiences of life and how they interact with the neural networks in our heads to produce certain firing patterns, which make up the fabric of our lives. He also talks about the brain being more than the organ that’s in our heads.

As I now understand it, the “brain” as we know it, is the organ inside our skull which directs the activities of the central nervous system, but it’s not the only brain in the body.

We have other masses of neural connections throughout our body, in particular, in the gut and around the heart. They look very different from what’s in our heads, but they do the same type of work – regulating the system they are attached to in ways that are responsive to our surroundings.

The brain in our gut, the “enteric nervous system” manage[s] every aspect of digestion, from the esophagus to the stomach, small intestine and colon.

enteric nervous system

Just like the larger brain in the head, researchers say, this system sends and receives impulses, records experiences and respond to emotions. Its nerve cells are bathed and influenced by the same neurotransmitters. The gut can upset the brain just as the brain can upset the gut.

The gut contains 100 million neurons – more than the spinal cord. Major neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, norephinephrine and nitric oxide are in the gut. Also two dozen small brain proteins, called neuropeptides are there along with the major cells of the immune system. Enkephalins (a member of the endorphins family) are also in the gut. The gut also is a rich source of benzodiazepines – the family of psychoactive chemicals that includes such ever popular drugs as valium and xanax.

And then we have the heart, which has a complex intrinsic nervous system that is sufficiently sophisticated to qualify as a “little brain” in its own right. The heart’s brain is an intricate network of several types of neurons, neurotransmitters, proteins and support cells like those found in the brain proper. Its elaborate circuitry enables it to act independently of the cranial brain – to learn, remember, and even feel and sense.

The heart communicates with the brain and the rest of the body in three ways documented by solid scientific evidence: neurologically (through transmissions of nerve impulses), biochemically (through hormones and neurotransmitters), and biophysically (through pressure waves). In addition, growing scientific evidence suggests that the heart may communicate with the brain and body in a fourth way – energetically (through electromagnetic field interactions). Through these biological communication systems, the heart has a significant influence on the function of our brains and all our Systems.

The Little Brain In the Heart
The Institute of HeartMath has a great page here showing pictures of The “Little Brain In the Heart”

Most of us are familiar with the concept of “gut feelings” or “following your heart” — and those ways of orienting ourselves in life play a huge part in how we manage our lives. It’s almost like we have two extra “backup” brains in those areas of our bodies, which work with the brains in our skulls to keep our whole system moving, breathing, living.

And these two “extra” brains communicate freely with the brains in our heads. We feel it in our bodies when our head-brains observe our surroundings and reach certain conclusions about what it all means. Our guts get turned around, as do our hearts. Or quite the opposite takes place, with the butterflies in our stomachs subsiding and/or our hearts slowing down their frantic beating.

On top of it all, we have the central nervous system with all its amazing connections, the nerves, the ganglia, the axonal connections, the neurons, the constant flow of energy and electricity throughout our systems. We are literally electric, with charges and pulses carrying messages from one microscopic member of the system to another… all of us comprised of millions and billions of neurons, each of which makes 10,000 connections and on-off firing patterns that provide us with infinite potential to become what we most desire.

If you think of the “brain” as a central processing unit of neurons and axons and synapses and all the controlling activity that goes on in them, then our entire body is filled with our brain. It’s just just inside our skulls —  it’s all through our bodies.

Now, knowing more about this brain stuff today than I did a month ago, I have to say it changes my perception of “brain injury” a bit. All along, I’ve been thinking about brain injury as being something that happens only to the head. I’ve been thinking — and saying — that brain injury and head injury are the same thing. But now I have to rethink this. And I have to start saying “head injury” a whole lot more than “brain injury” because while my head may have gotten banged up over the years, my gut brain and my heart brain have not taken the same sort of beating — they’ve taken different ones, of course, but they haven’t had the same specific sorts of physical impacts that my head has had.

At the same time, I have to consider other injuries I’ve had — such as when I fell out of a tree when I was 14 or 15 years old and landed across a log on my back — that affected my spine, which is chock-full of nerves and connections. And let’s not forget the car accidents. Don’t want to leave them out of the picture. I need a broader view of what makes my life more “interesting”. And I need a broader view of what makes my life more whole.

Indeed, when I think about the brain as encompassing body experience and knowledge and processing, as well as what’s in my head, it offers some pretty good clues as to how I’ve managed to stay in the game, so to speak, despite these injuries. If there’s more to my brain than what’s in my head… if my brain is actually distributed throughout my body… if I have other “backup brains” that are able to jump in and help out with information and energy processing throughout my whole system, then it relieves some of the intensity around my head injuries, and it offers me clues about how I am able to keep keepin’ on, despite my various setbacks over the years.

It’s complicated, of course… The head-brain clearly plays a part in regulating the rest of the body, and its importance is vital — we need it to live. But at the same time, what happens in the heart and the gut has its own intelligence, which impacts what goes on in the head, and that often goes unnoticed. I’m going to have to start thinking more carefully about this, as I go about my business. Pay more conscious attention to what my heart-brain and gut-brains are telling me — not just what my head-brain is gong on about.

Our systems are marvelously complex and interconnected. And it feels good to “get” that and be connecting things that I hadn’t really given much concentrated, focused thought to, in the past. It’s impossible to separate the system out into distinct pieces and truly make sense of it. I would even venture to say that the only truly thorough way to understand the system that is our “brain”, is to consider first the interconnections and interactions between its various elements, and then move from that point to understand the distinct parts.

I guess the bottom line is, there’s more to the brain than what’s in the head.

Author: brokenbrilliant

I am a long-term multiple (mild) Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI or TBI) survivor who experienced assaults, falls, car accidents, sports-related injuries in the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s. My last mild TBI was in 2004, but it was definitely the worst of the lot. I never received medical treatment for my injuries, some of which were sports injuries (and you have to get back in the game!), but I have been living very successfully with cognitive/behavioral (social, emotional, functional) symptoms and complications since I was a young kid. I’ve done it so well, in fact, that virtually nobody knows that I sustained those injuries… and the folks who do know, haven’t fully realized just how it’s impacted my life. It has impacted my life, however. In serious and debilitating ways. I’m coming out from behind the shields I’ve put up, in hopes of successfully addressing my own (invisible) challenges and helping others to see that sustaining a TBI is not the end of the world, and they can, in fact, live happy, fulfilled, productive lives in spite of it all.

12 thoughts on “Beyond the “skull-based brain””

  1. I really enjoyed this post. As a biologist (then) I have done a lot of research on the brain and TBI’s, but you seem to find so many great articles and so much good information that I have never seen before. Thank you for sharing this. It helps me a lot. I have quoted you in my blog several times – giving credit to you, of course.

    Keep up this good work


  2. Thanks very much — I have the advantage of not being allied with any organization or “oversight” body to point me in specific directions, so I’m free to research and discover and write about what I choose.

    Freedom works for me — I’m glad it’s working for you too.




  3. BB,

    That’s amazing stuff. I’ve been too busy to peruse all this info in detail, but I find this idea of the ‘brain’ being located in different parts of the body.

    In ‘Stroke of Insight’ the writer (why can’t I remember her name?) talks about her intuitive gifts increasing when her rational side diminished. I had a similar experience, though it was more subtle, and I find now that I’ve been training my analytical/ rational side more, the intuitive is diminishing.

    A lot to think about. I’ll write more anon.



  4. Yes – Jill Bolte Taylor is the one who did “Stroke of Insight”. I recently heard someone else talk about how when they had a serious head injury — and had amnesia for about 24 hours — they were totally in the moment, weren’t caught up in judgments and categorizations, and they had a full experience of their life. They said they suspected it was because the part of their brain that does all the judging and classifying got “mushed up” – but they couldn’t be sure.

    I saw Ms. Taylor on YouTube in her TED talk. I have to admit I have some trouble accepting her talk about “left brain vs. right brain” and I think it’s more complex than that. All the same, I do think she made an amazing recovery and she’s a great role model for folks who are tempted to give up after stroke.

    One thing that I wondered, when I heard her talk about her experience, was whether she didn’t actually have a seizure. I’ve heard those kinds of revelations she described attributed to seizures. I don’t want to take anything away from her, but I have to really wonder what the source of those revelations was.

    Then again, lots of significant cultural events have come out of temporal lobe epilepsy. The origins of tons of great art, and not a few major religions, can be traced back to temporal lobe “storms” — much of the tracing done posthumously, of course.

    Not that it takes away from it — but it does put seizure in a different light, and it does make it more of an extra-ordinary part of human experience, rather than solely a pathological condition.

    Just food for thought…


  5. Hey bb, really fascinating post. Your insights fit well with our work. Informed by the recent Neuroscience findings about the discovery of functional and complex neural networks or ‘brains’ in the heart and gut, we’ve completed 2.5 years of behavioral modeling research on the core competencies of these brains and how they communicate and integrate with the head brain. We’ve written about our findings and the models and techniques in our recently published book ‘mBraining’. See for more info.

    What we found is that each of the ‘brains’ has its own prime functions and competencies and that communication between the brains can be more or less functional and aligned. We’ve even seen evidence of what happens in TBI when the gut brain decides to close down communication and trust between it and the head brain after injury of the head brain. Years later, one individual we worked with had largerly overcome the head injury deficits, relearning to move and talk and functioning ‘normally’, but had large issues with motivation, decision making and feeling like she had ‘two souls’. Using the integration exercises and techniques from our models, she was able to finally reestablish connection, integration and communication between all three brains, and reclaim her sense of ‘soul’ unity. Fascinating stuff.


  6. Thanks for the info – your book looks very interesting. Unfortunately, it’s a bit pricey for me, so I’ll have to wait to check it out. I also believe that our multiple brains are largely overlooked in tbi considerations – even though a head-brain injury can and does affect the functioning of the other brains. I personally believe that the post-traumatic stress and its effects on the vagus nerve plays a huge role in tbi — and not only for war-related tbi survivors. The stresses that are kicked off by tbi snowball into larger autonomic nervous system issues — which of course go largely undetected, because everybody’s looking at the tbi and head-brain as the source of the issues… which keep the head-brain from recovery fully, as quickly as it could, because of the biochemical stress soup it’s marinating in. If anything, post-traumatic stress could probably be implicated as a huge contributor to ongoing tbi issues — especially those that arise, years after the initial injury — rather than the actual injury alone.

    It’s all connected, of course, and I hope your new connections and understandings can reach a broad audience and help expand our understanding of all our brains.

    Best of luck.


  7. Hi bb, you’re so right, its all connected, and totally agree about the vagus nerve playing a large role in many forms of tbi.

    Not sure if you noticed, but the kindle version of our book is very low price, done deliberately so that it can reach a wide audience, even for those with a small budget, and there’s free kindle reader software available that will allow you to read it on pretty much any device, including a pc.

    best wishes, mBraining


  8. I was amazed and relieved to find out recently that we can use our multiple brains to help us day to day and assist in decision making. Getting my head brain to do things that came easy for me before my Brain Haemorrhage was really frustrating. using the techniques i picked up at an MBIT 4 days intensive gave me great encouragement and i cant believe that there where so many different people from all walks of life that had researched and investigated this field. Hope that your recovery is speedy and your work in this area brings new insights that we can all learn from. Bill


  9. Hey Bill – glad to hear you had a great experience with MBIT. It really has helped me, too, although I think I’m less formally trained than others. The things I find and use have been very beneficial for myself and others. Good luck with your new “toolbox” and stay strong.


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