The Other Brain


What image comes to mind (your brain) when you hear those words, the other brain.  Surprisingly those words can be used in a number of different contexts.  In this article we will describe some of these different concepts that are involved in different people’s interpretation of the other brain. 

The Head Brain

If the word brain makes you think immediately of what is held within your cranium (head) then clearly the brain is an organ of the human body.  Where it gets interesting is how that brain thinks.  Dr. R. Douglas  Fields believes that the brain is much more than the gray matter that we all talk about.  We are all familiar with the notion of the small electrical currents that are moving around in our brain as we think.  That is our Gray Matter at work, or so we might think.  However Dr. Fields would encourage us to focus on the White Matter in the brain.

“Gray matter” is possibly our most common nickname for the brain, that is, the folded-up layers of neurons found in the cerebral cortex, responsible for memory, perception, language and logic.

Famously, scientists pondering slices of Albert Einstein’s brain under a microscope found no discernible difference between his brain and anyone else’s.  It turns out, Einstein’s brain contained much more white matter than the average Joe’s. And that is just one clue to white matter’s importance.

So what exactly is White Matter?  This includes four types of brain cells known as glia.

Unlike neurons that operate by electrical signals, glia behave chemically.  Glia interact with neurons in previously unknown ways.  One type of glia, myelin, is what allows us to carry good heads on our shoulders that are not any bigger than a breadbox.

The insulation they provide to nerve axons speeds the impulse conduction 100 times and allows the miniaturization of our brains.  Glia perform a range of important duties. They take in information from neurons, respond to their signals, control velocity and timing of conduction, act as the immune system of the brain, provide the brain with new neurons and control other complex brain activity.

This use of the concept of the other brain as part of what is going on inside our heads is clearly justifiable.  However others have used the term other brain or second brain to describe quite different concepts.

The Gut Brain

Although it is a myth that dinosaurs had two brains, it is true that a second or other brain may exist in us all.  This is sometimes described as the gut brain because it deals with extremely basic reactions such as fight or flight when danger threatens.

Although not everyone thinks it is located in our stomachs, Dr.  Michael Gershon does not agree.    He is an expert in the nascent field of neurogastroenterology and author of the 1998 book The Second Brain. 

There is an often-overlooked network of neurons lining our guts that is so extensive some scientists have nicknamed it our “second brain”.

A deeper understanding of this mass of neural tissue, filled with important neurotransmitters, is revealing that it does much more than merely handle digestion or inflict the occasional nervous pang. The little brain in our innards, in connection with the big one in our skulls, partly determines our mental state and plays key roles in certain diseases throughout the body.

Although its influence is far-reaching, the second brain is not the seat of any conscious thoughts or decision-making. 

That is a very literal interpretation of the term got brain, but others have interpreted this term, gut brain, more figuratively.  Perhaps it may be linked to the limbic area of our cranial brain that is the area that handles all those basic instinctive reactions.  What is quite clear is that it deals with non-logical and extremely rapid reactions.  They might almost be described as unthinking responses.

This gut brain can come into play in even the simplest situations for example in deciding whether you click away from a website or stay to explore.  This is not something that search engines get involved with as their spiders think only logically and only about the digital content.  However to create engaging websites, you must be aware that instinctive reactions will play their part.

the gold

Taking this notion to even larger and more important situations, although he does not use the term ‘gut brain’, Simon Sinek covers similar ground in thinking about inspirational leadership.  For him the key is a golden circle and the question “Why?”

Someone may try to sell us on a cause by describing the What and the How.  That engages our logical brain but it is not the logical brain that determines the precise moment when we switch from a non-committal position to one of engagement.  Determining what is right for us is not determined by a cold-blooded accounting of the pluses and minuses.  At some point we know it feels right and we’re in.  At that point suddenly we know Why we want to get involved.

Sinek points out that you don’t bring people onside by explaining in detail What it is that you want them to support nor by a long description of How you will be delivering on that What. That’s all grist for the logical brain. It is necessary that they get enough of that logic to remove any barriers, but it is not sufficient to get them motivated. That comes by linking with that part of their brain that determines Why you do things. You must engage with that second brain and satisfy that urge to know Why I should get involved. As Sinek says in his book, Start With Why.

Here is a Ted lecture video where Simon Sinek describes what is involved. He is an engaging speaker and you won’t regret spending time on hearing what he has to say on this.

… or perhaps in discussing the other brain, we have been talking about the third brain all this time. It’s all food for thought.

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