The Three Centers of Intelligence, based on our innate structure as human beings, illuminates the Enneagram system. These Centers correspond to what neurobiologists describe as three primary focal areas of the nervous system that extends thoughout the body.
Every nerve cell communicates some form of energy and information to other nerve cells through the action of neuropeptides. There are three places in the body where there are so many nerve cells bundled together that we might call them centers of intelligence. Those three centers are found in the head, in the chest, and in the gut or lower abdomen. In Enneagram parlance, we call the Three Centers of Intelligence the Head Center, the Heart Center, and the Belly Center.
Let’s Take a Look at the Brain
Each of the Three Centers of Intelligence has a counterpart in the portion of the nervous system that is situated in the skull.
The Head Center is linked with the cerebral cortex or the outer “rind” of the brain. This area is associated with cognitive functions like memory, attention, perceptual awareness, thought, language, and consciousness. In simple terms we can think about it as supporting the Thinking Function.
The Heart Center is linked to what are known as the limbic areas of the brain. Even though new research tells us that brain functioning is not really this simplified or discrete, it is still useful to think of the limbic system as organizing our emotions, motivations, and high-level automatic behaviors, such as habits. We can think of this area as supporting the Feeling Function.
Finally, the Belly Center is linked to the brain stem, the posterior area – or back – of the brain, continuing into the spinal cord. This portion of the brain helps to regulate the central nervous system, the circulatory system including the heart, the respiratory system, and other autonomic (or automatic) functions. The nerve connections of the motor and sensory systems from the main part of the brain to the rest of the body pass through the brain stem. We can think of this as regulating the Instinctual Function. We can think of this big bundles of nerves in the Belly Center or the Gut as supporting the Instinctual Function.
How the Belly Center Supports Personality
The Instinctual Function was the first to develop as we evolved as a species (phylogenetically), and the first to develop as embryos in the womb (ontogenetically). Students of yoga recognize the Belly Center as an integration of the first three chakras. In Sufi teachings it is called the kath center, and in Chinese medicine it is the tan tien (or dantian).
This Center is located in the lower abdomen, about three fingers’ width below the navel and two fingers’ width toward the interior of the body. Through the Belly Center we experience vitality, being grounded and a sense of strength and the capacity for taking action.
Think about common language that acknowledges the intelligence of this center: “I know it in my gut,” “Follow your gut instinct on that,” “That really took guts.”
When the Belly Center is out of balance, we experience tension. Try tensing every muscle in your body for a few seconds. Notice how much more energy it takes to sustain this condition. If someone were to gently push you, you would either be rigidly unmovable or you would fall over. We might experience this tension as armoring, as though nothing can get in.
Think of the Belly Center as monitoring our boundaries. When we were infants, we had to develop an understanding of the boundary created by our skin. It is our first sense of personal identity. When the Belly Center is in balance we have a sense of grounded Presence: “Here I am.”
The Three Centers of Intelligence: Getting to the Heart of It
The Heart Center is the focus of the Feeling Function. Three primal emotions—fear, anger, and sadness—are automatically evoked under conditions of threat, frustration, or loss. The Heart Center, however, is more than reactions to primal survival. It is related to the next stage in human development, beginning in infancy.
Having established a sense of autonomous identity with a boundary between self and others, the infant begins an exchange with that Other, whoever this might be. When others pay attention to the infant, she learns to mimic them, cooing when they coo and crying when they are tense or yelling. At the same time the others are reflecting aspects of the child and what she is doing.
The term for this interplay is “mirroring.” We respond to babies in ways that tell them about themselves: “What a pretty little girl you are! Look at those big blue eyes.” “What strong little legs you have.” “You look just like your Daddy.” With accurate mirroring, children build a sense of knowing who they are and of having worth or value. If the child is not seen or accurately responded to, it interferes with self-image and identity, our relationships with others and with the world.
The Heart Center and the Narrative of Self-identity
Over time we create a story about who we are and what our life is about based on the quality of attention we receive and how we experience ourselves as fitting into the world of relationships. This is the narrative of self-identity. This also contributes to what we learn to value, and establishes an inner benchmark for whether or not something is true. We say, “I know it in my heart,” “Let your heart guide the way,” or “He’s too hard-hearted.”
When out of balance in the Heart Center, we tend to be emotionally reactive. We can be irritable or agitated if the reaction generates too much energy, or depressed if the reaction creates a drop in energy. Just like Goldilocks, it is too much, not enough, or just right. When the Heart Center is in balance, we face the world with confident acceptance that lets us stay open to whatever is happening.
Heading Towards the Future
The Head Center is the focus of the Thinking Function. As children our cognitive abilities develop over time, and even in adolescence our brains are still growing into their full capacity for objective, rational thinking. Once we fully inhabit our bodies through grounding in the Belly Center and have a sense of identity through the Heart Center, we are ready to think about moving into the future.
As Russ Hudson teaches, we recognize “Here I am,” then begin to answer the question “Who am I?” and are finally able to ask “Now, what can I trust?” One of the most challenging things about the Head Center is that it deals with abstractions, with nothing solid to sense or hold on to. The issue to be dealt with in this center is security, the desire to know that we are safe now and will be safe in the future.
Exploring the Three Centers of Intelligence: An Exercise
Ask yourself to imagine the worst thing that could happen to you today. Take time to really see and feel into this worst case scenario. Then make a few notes about what you imagined. Go into detail reflecting on how you feel physically in response to this situation and what you are experiencing emotionally.
Now clear your mind and ask yourself, “What is the very best thing that could happen to me today?” Notice what you are imagining, what you feel emotionally and what you are experiencing in your body. How is this different from what happened when you imagined the worst case? Again, make a few notes for yourself.
Take a minute to review both sets of notes and remind yourself that, in fact, neither situation actually took place in external reality, even though your physical and emotional reactions were very real to you. This demonstrates how powerful our minds can be.
It’s helpful to remember that most of us sustain an inner dialogue throughout our waking hours, telling ourselves stories about what happened in the past, analyzing what is happening in the present, and creating powerful scenarios about what might happen in the future. These inner stories are so strong that most of us believe what is going on in our heads is who we really are.
Opening Up Our Minds
My coaching clients often ask: “What is the alternative?”
Western culture has elevated and valued the processes generally associated with the left hemisphere of the brain, functions like logical, objective, rational thinking, as well as naming, calculating, and sequential ordering. The Thinking Function has created hierarchical organizational structures and the use of the scientific method in medical research, physics, and astronomy, and more. Since the Age of Enlightenment, emphasis on the development of these functions has been so pronounced that it has shaped the global worldview of success.
What else would you use the mind for?
As an alternative, imagine yourself standing under a spacious night sky, nearly black and filled with tiny dots of light. Do you remember being a child and sitting under the stars, wondering what was out there and maybe feeling like a tiny little speck? The silence and boundlessness of this spaciousness is similar to what our minds can be like when we empty out the thousands of details and worries that usually preoccupy us. In that spacious emptiness we are open and receptive to the wisdom and guidance that comes from beyond analytical knowledge and ordinary self-awareness.
The Balanced Head Center
Sometimes in dreams, when the left hemisphere is resting, we have experiences that give us insight into puzzling problems. In daydreams or guided imaging we similarly put the busy mind on pause and receive other input or guidance. For those of us comfortable with this different style of knowing, it I can be a fun and welcome relief from trying to figure everything out. For others who are skeptical of what is perceived as non-rational, it may be hard to let go of reliance on the linear left-brain.
When the mind is awake and operating but not over-working, we discover a capacity for trust in the beneficence of whatever it is that holds us, call that God or Being or the Universe. Faith and trust are considered qualities of a balanced Head Center.
When the Head Center is out of balance our minds are filed with mental chatter and strategizing, trying to fill the gap between what we know and the unknown future, even if that future is only minutes away. Usually we experience anxiety, doubt, and insecurity, as though we are standing on an unfamiliar path in the dark, wondering where to go and what lies ahead.
The Three Centers of Intelligence: Relating to the Enneagram
The power of the Enneagram is that each of the nine personality patterns is built on a particular imbalance in one of the centers. This imbalance identifies the core challenge that must be resolved in order for an individual with that core Type to become liberated from the unconscious patterns of what we might call “false personality.” That is another term for an unawakened personality that does not recognize the presence of its True Nature.
In other words, each Enneagram type either over-uses the center of it’s imbalance, is blocked from fluid access to that center, or applies the center in a limited way to almost every aspect of their lives.
The three types with Belly Center imbalances are:
- Type Eight
Overuses the Belly Center, always ready to act on what they want
- Type Nine
Blocked from full access to the Belly Center and has trouble acting, especially on their own behalf
- Type One
Focuses on the Belly Center as a perpetual call to action to make the world live up to their idealization of what is Right.
The three types with Heart Center imbalances are:
- Type Two
Overuses the Heart Center, always wanting to make interpersonal connections through emotional interactions
- Type Three
Blocked from full access to the Heart Center and has trouble finding their Heart’s Desire, relying instead on outside values
- Type Four
Focuses the Heart Center in a perpetual reliance on emotionality to establish their identity.
The three types with Head Center imbalances are:
- Type Five
Overuses the Head Center, believing in their inner world of analysis above all else
- Type Six
Blocked from full access to the Head Center and is usually asking others for advice or worrying over how to prevent problems
- Type Seven
Focuses the Head Center on figuring out how to optimize their options to keep life interesting.
In future blogs I will explore in more detail how each of the Enneagram types expresses the Three Centers of Intelligence. It is a powerful teaching for understanding ourselves and other people – and is especially relevant to where we find ourselves in the current world situation.