How Many Brains Have You Got?

Henry Howlett

Rather than being an expression of neurological one-upmanship, the above question is one that contemporary researchers suggest should be taken very seriously. The answer that is coming to light has significant implications, not only for medical science, but also because it clearly validates a core principle on which Steiner Waldorf education is founded.

Over the last few decades, neuroscientists have established compelling evidence that changes the way we understand the neurological architecture of the human being: in addition to the vast number of neurons that collectively form the brain that is to be found in our heads, there are also complex and distinct neuronal structures capable of sophisticated function, to be found in our heart region and the region of our digestive system. The research of neurocardiologist Dr John Armour and that of Dr Michael Gershon in the field of neurogastroenterology, have been central to these discoveries. The working definition of a brain used by these researchers is based on attributes such as: presence of large number of neurons (including specialization for sensory, motor, and support functions), high levels of inter-connectivity, ability to learn from experience, capacity to remember, and functional independence.

The emerging picture is one in which our traditional ‘grey matter’, the cranial brain, interacts with two contemporaries: the cardiac brain and the enteric brain.

Building on this physiological research, Grant Soosalu and Marvin Oka have developed a behavioural model linked to the existence three brains. They suggest that each of these putative brains has a specialized function related to its location within the body.

The cranial brain, unsurprisingly, is associated with cognitive and sensory function, whereas the cardiac brain is considered to play a critical role in our emotional experience and also to be the basis of personally-held values.

The enteric brain is linked to instinctive action and self-preservation along with a suggestion regarding sense of personal identity.

For the purposes of this article, the revelatory implication of an emergent Three Brains model, is that it provides robust evidence in support of a core principle of Steiner Waldorf education; namely that there are three core human capacities: thinking, feeling and doing (the latter often referred to as willing). Although Steiner embraced the notion that human experience can be reduced to three core activities, its origins can be traced back at least as far as Plato, and numerous and illustrious have been its advocates along the way.

These three capacities, referred to by Rudolf Steiner as soul qualities, are an essential feature of the understanding of the human being that underpins Steiner Waldorf education; an understanding that informs its curriculum and the particular teaching methods deemed most effective at successive stage of child development.

A moment’s introspection allows us to gain an intuitive grasp of how these three soul qualities of thinking, feeling and willing are related to the head region, the heart region and the digestive region respectively. Whilst contemplating an intellectual question, or retrieving a fact from memory, we have a subjective experience of activity in our head region. Similarly, our emotions and intuitions are subjectively experienced in the chest region. When gathering courage in relation to carrying out a daunting task, we often have a sense of a commitment-to-act that seems to originate from the region of our gut; the familiar expression that someone has ‘guts’, as a reference to their courage to act is pertinent here.

The significance of the threefold human capacity for thinking, feeling and willing is far-reaching within Steiner Waldorf education. Even the layout of the schools themselves, with their departmental distinction between Kindergarten, Lower School and Upper School, reflects three septennial periods in child development, each of which is characterised by an emphasis on either willing, feeling or thinking.

The threefold concept of thinking feeling and willing, which is so germane to Steiner Waldorf education, has been validated historically by the positive experiences that teachers and pupils have had as a result of it application in classroom practice. Similar validation has come from practitioners working in medical and therapeutic settings that also espouse a commitment to Steiner’s understanding of the human being. However, this validation is of an anecdotal nature and therefore considered less credible within the evidence-driven culture of contemporary education. Everyone would agree that human beings variously think things, feel things and do things; but the formulation of these elements within a threefold principle that purports to explain the underpinnings of human experience, is not widely accepted.

Consequently, the confidence of Steiner Waldorf educators to champion the significance, in terms of outcomes for pupils, of an education based on thinking, feeling and willing, has often been unduly reserved. Crucially, the neuroscientific research outlined in this article provides empirical evidence to support a neurophysiological architecture that is consistent with a fundamental distinction between thinking, feeling and willing; a distinction that shapes our understanding of what it means to be a human being. It would seem that 100 years of successful Steiner Waldorf pedagogy has at last been given the beginnings of a robust external validation from the hands of contemporary science.

Armour, J. A. (2008). Potential clinical relevance of the “little brain” on the mammalian heart. Exp. Physiol. 93, 165–176.

Michael Gershon, The second Brain, Harper Collins1998

Grant Soosalu & Marvin Oka, Neuroscience and the Three Brains of Leadership, 2003