One of the most prevalent current brain myths is the idea that we have “three brains.” That is, the reptilian, the mammalian, and the neocortex. We evolved, it is said, as a sort of three-layer cake, with each new area sliding neatly on top of the other, older brain(s). And so, the belief is that when we’re stressed or upset, one or both of the lower brains often takes over, flooding us with emotion and making rationality impossible.

Many leadership programs, trainings in emotional intelligence, and even neuroscience books and workshops continue to perpetuate this myth, encouraging people, in effect, to get their “lower brains” under control.

And (mea culpa) for many years at BEabove Leadership we have done the same. Our view has been that in order to become more effective, you have to create or strengthen integrative networks between the older mammalian or “limbic” brain and the newer, more powerful (and by extension, better) prefrontal cortex.

But neuroscience (bless it, damn it) keeps evolving. And so we have come to understand that our former view just isn’t right. So, speaking of evolution, let’s start there. What we now understand is that instead of thinking of the brain like a three-layer cake, let’s think of it more like an organization. Imagine you started an organization with just one person–you. You did everything, and there were some things you didn’t do at all because you had no bandwidth and no skills in that area. Let’s call this production. You bring in a partner and they have new skills, let’s say sales and promotion. As an organization, you are now doing things you couldn’t do. AND the new person is coordinating with you and helping you with some of the tasks you have traditionally done, maybe helping you do them in new ways. They expand into your space and you, having more capacity, expand into their space as well. Then you add a third person for customer service. They have to work with both sales and production. Their insight and feedback alters how the other areas work and vice versa. The whole organization keeps evolving as a whole. Feedback loops develop and continue to change as the organization expands. People’s roles shift and change. Production sits on the marketing committee even though that isn’t their area of key responsibility and expertise. If it evolves as an effective organization, it will be made up of interwoven teams.

And this, my friends, is how your brain evolved. There isn’t a “reptilian brain” or “mammalian brain” waiting to get activated under stress. There are areas, networks, and even chemicals that have key responsibility for certain things, but they are inextricably linked to other parts of the brain team.

In general, the brain as a whole has proven to be highly complex and intricate, with deep interconnections and cross-connections. Circuit elements and brain regions are part of a complex dynamic system that does not easily separate into independent modules. For example the limbic regions do not really form a coherent system, and the limbic subregions, like the amygdala or hippocampus, are better understood in relation to the brain as a whole rather than to other limbic system elements.

Paul King, Neuroscientist, on Quora, 2017

And so, at BEabove we wanted to come up with a compelling visual image for the brain instead of the three-layer cake model. After much kicking things around, we started wondering if an orchestra might work. Because the truth is, there are areas of the brain that play certain notes–like the brass section of an orchestra, for example. The french horns and trombones can blare so loudly they drown out the other instruments, or they can play in harmony with the violas and flutes. And the music an orchestra can create is infinitely variable.

In terms of effectiveness, we have come to see that our friend integration, using Dr. Dan Siegel’s definition: the linkage of differentiated parts, operates beautifully in this metaphor. Rather than the overly simplistic idea of integrating the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, we are now thinking of integrating the entire orchestra.

In a simple (but hopefully not simplistic) way of thinking, this means increasing our ability to hear the different parts of our own orchestra and what they have to offer us. This is differentiation. Are the bass drums playing? Well, is there something we need to pay attention to? And while they are playing, is there a soft piccolo also trying to be heard? Is there a way to bring a clear thoughtfulness to the situation? Being aware of the multiple parts of our brain that are activated and being able to honor the various messages sent is linkage.

One of the problems and inaccuracies of the old model of three brains is that it has us tending to think of “higher” and “lower” brains, putting rational thought up high and emotions lower down. The orchestra model, in contrast, says that all parts of our brain have something to contribute to the overall system. And depending on our level of awareness, this can create harmony or dissonance.

Ursula tells a story of trying to get from Minneapolis to Canada to lead a workshop recently, without knowing that as a non-US citizen, rules had changed and she now needed a visa. She spent eight hours at the airport trying in various ways to work things out, with a snowstorm looming and a training the next day. “There were times when I could feel my percussion section taking over! I didn’t know what to do or where to turn,” she told me. “But instead of losing it completely, I told myself to listen for the woodwinds, and the more I put my attention there, the more I felt I could start to find a glimmer of direction, an idea of how to manage this.”

In other words, the parts of her brain more responsible for fight/flight/freeze were getting pretty loud. But that didn’t mean that she had lost her prefrontal cortex and ability to think. It was just being a bit drowned out. So, like the talented orchestra conductor of the brain she is, she said to herself, ok, drums a bit less, flutes a bit more. Percussion is telling her this is serious, pay attention–a valuable message. Woodwinds say, and you can handle this. Listening to both gives us integration and an effective way forward.

So, when we think about the Seven Levels of Effectiveness, we are now thinking, what’s my orchestra up to? Is it playing in harmony? Can I hear the different parts or is one area drowning the others out? And if so, does that make sense right now given the music I want to create?

P.S. After I wrote this, I saw an interesting article about brain networks which also used the metaphor of a company evolving–the author says the brain is like a co-working space. 🙂