Our Sixth Brain, the Coolest Thing Ever – Our Shared Social Brain

In Neurobiology by Dr. Keith Witt

iStock_000001806047XSmall1 I’ve written in previous blogs about our five brains (The Life Vessel, the Vagus Nerve, and Transcendent states). We actually have a sixth brain—our shared social brain—that harnesses and harmonizes the other five to co-create the kind of human miracles (like speaking, loving, and brainstorming) that we all take for granted. Before I talk more about our sixth brain, let’s review the first five:
  • Our first brain is the brain stem—our lizard brain—which is all about survival. Food, water, shelter, bodily processes, and protection dominate our brain stem, and there’s not much room for social niceties. You don’t look at a writhing ball of snakes and say, “Oh, how sweet! They’re playing with each other!”
  • Our second brain is our limbic area, in the middle of our skull, that is our social brain. All mammals (and some birds) share this area, and it motivates us, helps us remember things, and guides us to connect with others. Our social brain makes us care how others relate to us, and so is responsible for social learning—like a child wanting to please his mother by being polite.
  • Our third brain is our cerebral cortex—six layers (each the thickness of a credit card) that cover the rest of the brain all squished together right under the skull. The cerebral cortex gives us powers of self-awareness, habitual responses to new situations (like automatically excusing yourself when you bump into someone), and problem solving.
  • Our fourth brain is our frontal lobes—the front part of our brain that constitutes 27% of the entire human cerebral cortex. Apes have the next biggest frontal lobes (17% of a chimp’s cortex), but apes can’t think and be aware like we can. Joseph Chilton Pearce, author of the mostly wonderful The Biology of Transcendence, believes frontal lobes became fully developed in humans only fifty thousand years ago, which corresponds to when people exploded out of Africa and took over the planet. The frontal lobes are the switching station, the self, the decision maker, and the empathic listener. They are a nexus point of the “I” who feels a personal existence in the world and can remember myself last week and consider what will happen next year. Language, learning, stories, self-soothing, mental time travel, and conscious choice all require the frontal lobes.
  • Our fifth brain is the circuit that extends via the tenth cranial nerve, the vagus nerve, from our brains to our hearts and guts and then back to our brains and faces. When presented with choices, our brains check out how our hearts and guts are feeling about them via this circuit. What feels right in my heart is not just a euphemism, there are integrative neurons around the heart that actually weigh in on what feels good or bad, right or wrong, yum or yuck (see Blog #25).

So, what about our sixth brain?

Last weekend I was sitting on the fifth floor of an apartment building in NYC meeting with my Evolutionary Collective group. I was looking out across Fifth Avenue at the trees surrounding the reservoir in Central Park, marveling at how beautiful they were as the rain fell on joggers and walkers braving the elements to get their workouts in. Kurt, Shyanne, and their four exquisite little kids (three girls and a boy) live in this apartment, and it has been a sacred space for our group meetings the last few years. Someone asked me to describe the five brains. I was explaining them when, suddenly, I realized that I was missing the sixth brain, our shared social brain. I got excited and told everyone:
“Actually, there is a sixth brain, our shared social brain. When two or more are gathered together, a system forms that affects how they understand and process emotion and information—a system that makes us think better, worse, or just different than when we’re not together. When we’re in groups like ours, based on acceptance and mutuality, our shared social brains—our sixth brains—do cool stuff single brains can’t. We actually can amplify our abilities to think, problem solve, and love in communion with others.”
As I said this, a lot of pieces clicked into place, and I had a rush of insights. “This is why teachers always say they learn the most from their students, and students go crazy over inspiring teachers. Here’s another reason I love feeling the fields people cocreate with each other.” I’m not kidding about the fields. This is not metaphor or new-age wu-wu. Science has revealed how our hearts and brains generate electromagnetic fields that influence each other. Additionally, when you and I meet, language, voice, face, body, and intent create living networks—fields—of engagement. We see and hear each other, and my neural networks are activated, which influence your neural networks, which then influence my neural networks, which…and so on. At their best, our sixth brains push evolution forward, yearning to connect, share, and create love, art, and science in service of others. Maybe this is why Lennon/McCartney wrote more soul-shattering songs that either Paul or John by themselves. There is something about human consciousness that craves forming group minds with others, and these shared social minds—our sixth brains—are different from single brains alone. M. Scot Peck called a group in harmony with a shared mission being “in community,” and optimizing group fields is a whole discipline of study (our Evolutionary Collective, http://www.evolutionarycollective.com/, is all about this). Dan Siegel, the famous originator of interpersonal neurobiology, defines mind as, “A relational, embodied process that directs information and energy flow. “Relational” means “us” and “we” create different minds than “I” and “me.” The beauty of creating these shared fields is that just being connected activates our sixth brain. Sixth brains can be scary. Mob psychology pressures people to change who they are in the face of hysteria and violence. Hitler lit torches, surrendered to his twisted shadow, and inspired thousands to scream and chant for genocide. Good people got sucked into that nightmare. Peer pressure is not just fear of disapproval; it is actual shared energies pressuring you to conform to the group. The key feature of such fields is the undercurrent of emotional and/or physical violence—the coercion message of “conform or face punishment.”

But, mostly, our sixth brains are the coolest things ever!

I was so stoked to realize all this last Saturday morning in the field I inhabit with my Evolutionary Collective friends—they’re the highest frequency group I’ve experienced (and I’ve been around a lot of groups). Our sixth brains in service of love, creation, and beauty are the culmination of 14 billion years of evolution—not quite (but really close) omega points of minds cocreating love and mutuality with other minds. Our communion with one another and the creations that arise from us are the crest of the evolutionary wave. Any surfer will tell you the sweetest place in the world is on the crest of a big wave. When my kids were little, I’d tell them stories every night about magical kingdoms and epic adventures. They asked me many times, “Daddy, is there really magic?”  I’d always smile, hug them, and reply, “Yes, the magic of this world is that we love each other.” So, the next time you’re hanging out with someone having even the most ho-hum conversation, pay attention to how your “we” makes you different from just your “me.” That “we” is your sixth brain.