When Heart and Head Become Friends

People who know me know that I love learning.  In fact, my thirst for learning often takes me into weird and wonderful journeys of discovery such as: why we do the things we do, even when we don’t want to, what we are capable of under extreme circumstances and how the thoughts we think have the power to change the very shape and structure of our brain.

One of the most life changing areas of learning fell into place when I read ‘The Coach’s Mind Manual: Enhancing Coaching Practice with Neuroscience, Psychology and Mindfulness’ by Syed Azmatullah. This connected a string of unrelated events that, when I put them all together, led me to an amazing discovery that increased my self-awareness and broadened my capacity to support others with similar challenges at a feelings level. 

Making the Connections

The seemingly unrelated incidents were, in their own rights, situations that had a profound impact on my life experience. Later they were to become links in a chain of learning.

The first came in the form of feedback from a coach. I felt embarrassed and uneasy about it at the time and it led to a deep sense of vulnerability.

The second link came some years later during my first year of mindfulness training. Less embarrassed and more intrigued with the sense of self that was coming to the fore.

When I read chapter 10 of The Coach’s Mind Manual, - ‘Our insula and ‘self’ repertoire’ - all became clear. Insights gained from following my curiosity down this particular path of insight helped me make sense of my seeming inability to articulate my feelings in response to being asked ‘feeling’ questions in both of the previous instances.  Let me expand. 

The first link: The Coaching Conversation

During a coaching skills training course, I volunteered to take part in a coaching conversation with another coach to demonstrate to a group of coaches-in-training, the power of asking questions.  I was shocked when the coach asked to share his observations as feedback.

He explained that when he asked me, “how do you feel about…?” or “what does it feel like when you…?” the responses I gave always started with, “I think…” (the coach pointed out to me that he had asked a series of five feeling questions and I had given five thinking responses in return).

When asked to, ‘try again and this time tell me how you feel’ I became aware that I did not have the words to explain.  I believed at that point that this insight shone a light on a huge lack in my ability to express myself fully as I was unable to articulate how I was feeling in that moment.

In fact, I later learned that articulation was one of my strengths however, it was the articulation of the cognitive stream of consciousness rather than the visceral, felt-sense of emotion that I was able to describe so eloquently.  Sayed Azmatullah helped me understand what was happening in a real, scientific way and this helped move me on. 

The second link: Developing Mindfulness

The second insight came some years later during my mindfulness training when I became aware that I was unable to respond to the teachers’ enquiry about what I was feeling in that moment (further compounded by her follow up question about where in the body I was feeling it). She had asked a hundred times before, just not to me directly.  The moment she asked me, I suddenly realised that, not only was I not aware of my feelings in that moment, I was suddenly aware of how I had closed myself off from connecting to the experiences of others as they described their felt sense of inner experiences in ways I did not resonate with.

Both of these learning links were stored away until I was ready to give them my fuller attention; perhaps when I had acquired a further piece of information that would connect them together.  That piece came in the form of the insula. 

Building a bridge between heart and mind

The insula is a part of the brain that was originally situated on the surface of the brain and, as the frontal and temporal lobes expanded, the insula was enveloped by the cerebral cortex and is now considered to be part of the limbic system.  Researchers have described the insula as, ‘an integration centre that acts as a major conduit linking cortical areas to inner limbic areas”[i].

Much has been written about the role of the insula in connecting the cognitive and emotional processing within the brain; like linking hearts and minds. 

It was during the second aha moment that my initial learning (about my tendency to describe how I felt about things in a conscious, thinking way) was reinforced.  I would share how I ‘felt’ by utilising a cognitive narrative of what was going on for me rather than attempting to find, the often-unobtainable language to describe the actual sensations or emotions I was feeling in my body (as I had seen and heard others do).

Further research around the functions of the insula alerted me to its role in self-referential processing and self-reflection[ii]. I learned that we are able to identify with how others are feeling or behaving in situations that resonate with us, by linking in with our own internal feelings derived from similar situations we have experienced.

This inter-connected processing is how many of us makes decisions.  We may decide based on gut instinct and then analyse our decision cognitively later on to provide an alternative perspective. Others may make a ‘head’ decision in the moment, only to feel unsatisfied with their choice later on. It is understanding that relationship between heart and mind and being aware of how the developing insula is connecting the two, that has helped me develop the crucial self-awareness I have needed to grow beyond these limiting self-beliefs. 

Every human being is unique

As always, any exploration into how our brain impacts on behaviour, tends to bring me back to the realisation that each and every human being is a unique individual and our neural networks are wired differently.  Although we can look at the role and function of specific neural networks, it is our personalised set of circumstances, development and hard-wiring that influences how all of these processes work together.

For instance, if we were encouraged to self-reflect and develop our explanatory self-narrative as children then this may lessen our insula connection to our felt-sense of internal experiences. If we were unaware of our physical, bodily needs, we may feel more comfortable viewing the world from our headspace, developing a cognitive stream of consciousness with the words and language to describe what we ‘see’ or understand to be happening.  Others’ life experiences may have led them to be less inclined to dwell on the environmental factors happening externally and instead, they tuned in to the internal visceral feelings and sensations going on within – often limiting the development of the narrative to put it into words.

Understanding the diversity of the preferential pathways that our insula uses to make connections and to build heart/head bridges, has helped me notice when I automatically jump to a head space.  Then I can choose to slow things down, connect to my feelings, my heart space, and meditate on what has happened (or what is happening in this moment).

Mindfulness has been the key to developing my heart/head bridge.  Understanding the role and function of the insula has enabled me to satisfy my need for knowledge in this situation and to make a conscious decision to nurture the dual thinking processes that are available to me.

The real value of this learning however, is that it has heightened my own self-awareness, enabling me to recognise the internal intuitive nudges when a coaching client is explaining their own heart/head disconnection from a place of not knowing... and to be comfortable holding this space while they explore it. 

[i] Cozolino 2006; Siegel 2007

[ii] Knox 2011


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