Now if you've read my and Marvin's new book, 'mBraining - Using your multiple brains to do cool stuff', you'll know that our gut brain is deeply involved in assimilating knowledge and information. The following story explores the neuro-linguistics of this.
Knowing in your gut
It is known from ancient Chinese historical records that the great sage Li Shizhen, a famous physician from the Ming Dynasty, was a skilled medical practitioner with a great love for medical books. Now, it’s said that in his home town there was a rival physician who was both incompetent and ignorant, but who owned a huge collection of medical books he used to show off his supposed wealth of knowledge.
As the story goes… one day at the end of a long and wet rainy season, the rival doctor ordered his servants to lay out his collection of medical books in the courtyard to dry. Pacing back and forth in front of the collection he primped and preened in an all too obvious display of both himself and his knowledge.
Passing through the courtyard, Li Shizhen stopped, loosened his clothing and dropped down next to the books. The physician, seeing Li Shizhen laying with his belly exposed to the sun, rushed over and asked, “Hey, what are you doing there?”
Li Shizhen responded, “I also want to get some sunshine for my books.”
His rival asked, “But where are your books then?”
Li patted his belly and said, “All my books are in here.”
Li Shizhen’s humorous yet insightful rejoinder tells us a lot. It talks deeply about how true knowledge depends not on how many books you own, but on how much knowledge you have digested. Now isn’t that interesting…
It is a common expression to talk about ‘digesting an idea’. You often hear people say things like “I need to digest that fact,” “I can’t swallow that notion.” What’s that about? Why is knowledge and understanding linked linguistically and metaphorically to gustatory experience? What’s going on here? As you’ll see, these are not just figures of speech.
Deep insights from neuro-linguistics
In the early 1970’s, John Grinder and Richard Bandler based at the University of California, and drawing on work from a diverse range of fields including General Semantics, Transformational Grammar, Ericksonian Hypnosis and Systems Theory, created a powerful synthesis they called Neuro Linguistic Programming or NLP for short. Using the methodology of Behavioral Modeling (more on this below), NLP developed models for human communication, learning and behavioral competence amongst others.
Science Digest reported that NLP: “could be the most important synthesis of knowledge about human communication to emerge since the explosion of humanistic psychology… It may be the ultimate behavioral engineering tool.”
NLP provides a set of models, skills and techniques for thinking and acting effectively in the world, through which you can change, adopt or eliminate behaviors in yourself and others. Most importantly for us, one of the many principles that NLP provided is the insight that how people use language is a direct representation of what is happening in their neurology. As NLP points out, “very little of human communication is metaphorical, language is a literal description of deep unconscious process.” What this means is that we can listen to natural and common expressions and unpack the underlying neurological processing represented within.
In terms of evidence for multiple intelligences outside of the head brain, common expressions such as:
- “Listen to your gut wisdom”
- “Trust the intelligence of your heart”
- “Follow your heart”
- “Use your gut intuition”
- “Trust your gut”
- “Be true to your heart”
- “My gut is telling me there’s something wrong”
- “Deep in my heart I know”
- “Go with your gut response”
These expressions all indicate in their neuro-linguistics that intelligence, wisdom and intuition are occurring in the regions of the heart and gut. This is a powerful insight and backs up the message from ancient esoteric traditions.
In 1980, at the University of California, two young linguists published a book that rocked the field of linguistics to its core and created a whole new and exciting field called Cognitive Linguistics. In their book, ‘Metaphors We Live By’, Professor George Lakoff and Dr. Mark Johnson demonstrated that much of language and thought is grounded in metaphor and that metaphor and associated aspects of mind are embodied. What does this mean?
When Lakoff and Johnson claim that mind and language is ‘embodied’ they are saying that human cognition depends on and deeply uses the sensorimotor system and emotions. An example might help explain this more simply. According to Lakoff a statement such as “She gave me a warm greeting” is based on an underlying conceptual metaphor that ‘Affection is Warmth’, and that this cognitive concept is embodied in an actual physical experience and a corresponding neural network mapping. We literally feel and experience affection as warmth. So the linguistic expressions we use to communicate and make sense of our world are representations of our ongoing unconscious experience of the world. As Lakoff puts it, “We are neural beings. Our brains take their input from the rest of our bodies. What our bodies are like and how they function in the world thus structures the very concepts we can use to think. We cannot think just anything — only what our embodied brains permit.”
[BTW: Notice the similarity here to the powerful ideas from NLP, cool hey, science meets the progeny of behavioral modeling.]
Lakoff and Johnson’s insights and theories were initially controversial and at first hotly debated throughout the halls of linguistic and psychological science. However, in the intervening period since 1980, and with the use of brain imaging tools, neural network simulations and other powerful technologies, the ideas from Cognitive Linguistics have been largely proven out. Metaphor and cognition really is embodied. And in the case of our example above, researchers at Yale University recently found that subjects holding a warm cup of coffee in advance were more likely to evaluate an imaginary individual as warm and friendly than those holding a cold drink. This of course is predicted by the conceptual metaphor that affection is warmth.
"Thought and language are largely metaphorical and embodied. Our language deeply represents underlying neural and behavioral processing."
Ok, that’s interesting, but really… so what? Well, here’s what’s really cool and useful about this: you can use what’s called ‘linguistic corpus analysis’ to unpack and infer the underlying neurological processes and competencies that are being referenced by the words people use. You can take common expressions and parlance, folk-wisdom if you will, and use it as a tool to guide behavioral modeling. And this is one of the many methodologies we’ve employed to create the new field of mBIT (multiple Brain Integration Techniques) and to discover what the core competencies of the gut and heart brains are.
And linking all this back to the TED talk above, you can see and hear the connection of how we process and consume knowledge -- we digest it, chew it over, use it as food for thought and learn by assimilating it into our core selves and our lives. When an idea doesn't sit right, we feel it in our gut. And this really is a deep and important insight.