Health by Design Interactive – Your heart’s intelligence system

June 5, 2022

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Health by Design Interactive Transcript


Each of us has an inherent human intelligence system. But how can we tune that system to help us achieve health, happiness, and success? Today on Health by Design Interactive, we explore how you can work towards these goals when you listen to what your heart is telling you. Here’s you host, Nicole Welbanks.

[Nicole Welbanks]

On behalf of Manulife Group Benefits, welcome to Health by Design Interactive.

I’m Nicole Welbanks, and today I have the pleasure of talking with Dr. Shimi Kang.

Shimi is a medical doctor, a researcher, and an expert on the neuroscience behind innovation, leadership, and motivation. She’s a Clinical Professor at UBC, best-selling author, and keynote speaker. Her passion is providing science-based solutions for health, happiness, and achievement in the workplace, classroom, and at home

Shimi, we’re delighted you’re able to join us today.

[Dr. Shimi Kang]

Thank you so much Nicole. Very excited to be here and have this conversation.

[Nicole Welbanks]

So, Dr. Kang, you’ve been helping us understand the full spectrum of ways that people process, use, and act on information. In a recent article, you explained that people have more than one brain to rely on. In fact, you say there are multiple centres of intelligence in the human body.

And I think understanding those centres of intelligence feels really critical to navigating these extraordinary times we all find ourselves in, and think about the challenges facing employers, leaders, teams, and individuals.

We need some help reestablishing connection and coming off pause.

So as a start, can you help us understand the science behind these centres of intelligence?

[Dr. Shimi Kang]

Yes, and I brought my friend here to help me out. So, you know it really is amazing science, and as a psychiatrist for almost 20 years, neuroscientist, this information, I feel, belongs to everyone.

When we understand it, we can do those things, those simple, but not easy things, like sleep, connection, some deep breathing. We have more motivation because we understand the why.

So, we have a gut-brain. Our gut-brain is very, very sensitive to primal, very primitive emotions of fear, of insecurity.

To the point, and this is a study that I think is very interesting, or an anecdote, back in the World Wars when soldiers were actually have surgeries and their guts were open. It’s a bit of a gory scene or image, but the surgeons could see the gut-brain contract or relax based on what was happening around them, the stress in that environment.

This is where intuition sits. This is why I talked about breathing, belly breathing, deep breathing in that first blog. A very powerful centre.

And then, today, I think we might talk about the heart-brain. We have neurons in our heart, highly intelligent for our social relationships.

And then the big brain in our heads. And that brain is what we call cognitive processes. This one kind of stole the show for many, many years, and all we talked about. But now I think it’s time that we really learn and understand that we have multiple centres of intelligence.

[Nicole Welbanks]

Yes, in your article, you spoke about the importance of listening to our gut. And I found that a really fascinating introduction to the topic of this human intelligence system.  And I encourage everyone listening to check it out in our newsroom. We’ll include a link below.

[Video displays a URL on the screen:]

But yes, today, we want to move up the body and talk about the neural networks in our heart.

So, it’s our heart-brain, isn’t it, that really inspires us to go out and create social connections.

[Dr. Shimi Kang]

Absolutely, so let me grab my heart here. Here we go.

So the heart, many people understand it as a pump, right. A mechanical pump with four chambers that’s job is like a plumbing system.

But in the 1990s we discovered neurons in the heart, and we now call the heart a psychoneuroimmunological organ. A very long word, but really what that means is our heart’s response to our psyche, our thoughts, our emotions, when we feel connected, it releases a very power neurohormone called oxytocin directly into our bloodstream. That is what makes us feel bonded, feel a sense of trust and belonging.

And when we are disconnected, lonely, or having difficulty, let’s say a workplace culture or bullying in the school system, our heart releases adrenaline. Very powerful, it pushes us into that stress response I talked about in our first blog there.

So, the heart-brain responds to our thoughts and emotions, psychological, neurological. It’s connected to our nervous system, our freeze, fight, or flight response. And immunological, it actually is very important in our immune system, and that’s how we know stress can impact our heart and our wellbeing.

So, this heart-brain really runs the show in many ways because we are social beings, and our social connections are so important to it.

[Nicole Welbanks]

That’s fascinating. Can you talk a little bit about how we leverage our heart-brain to make better decisions or inspire others?

[Dr. Shimi Kang]

So, like I mentioned, the real main skill of the heart-brain is our relationships and connections with each other. And I’m really happy to hear that there is so much more conversation around empathy, workplace culture, collaboration, you know, moving from competitive systems of school and workplace to a more collaborative 21st century world.

So, all of that is really nicely in tune with human neuroscience. We are meant to live in a community.

And what I love to tell people is the most motivating thing if you’re feeling kind of down, and lazy, and a bit blah in this pandemic or in general, because we know stress was the number one health pandemic before the pandemic. One thing that is guaranteed to lift your mood, increase your energy, give you hits of all those wonderful things, dopamine, oxytocin, is called the helper’s high. The helper’s high.

So, when we connect and contribute to someone else, whether it’s in our family, workplace, or community, and especially in our own unique way, so it’s not about volunteering, it’s about giving or having a connection or contribution that we uniquely feel we’re good at.

That helper’s high is what’s called mission motivation. It’s our highest form of motivation, and that’s really driving the heart-brain. So, we’re really about being social, being connected, and contributing to each other.

[Nicole Welbanks]

Let's go in a little bit of a different direction.

You know sometimes we might believe that thinking with our heart is the wrong thing to do. That following our heart isn't good business.

What would you say to that?

[Dr. Shimi Kang]

Yeah, so that's very interesting.

We really value logic; I would say when the original workforce and classroom system were created.

So, if we think back, we were hunters and gatherers for 70 or 80 thousand years of human history. That's when our neuroscience and hardwiring evolved, and we are really designed to work together in groups, be in nature, and all kinds of wonderful things.

We were agriculturalist for about 10,000 years. The agricultural era, then the Industrial revolution came, and we saw the modern-day workplace, which was a factory model. And the modern-day classroom, which is all the kids sitting in rows, just like a factory.

At that time information was not readily available. We had to find a teacher, or mentor, or book to collect information. And logic, knowledge, left-brain kind of cognitive skills really became a measure of success, knowledge, and performance. And we started to overvalue what would be called a technical, logical, left-brain skills.

And then of course the world changed, and we don't need to know the answer to everything. We just need to know how to ask the right question on Google and knowledge is accessible.

And we started to hear EQ, we started to hear empathy, emotional connection. That originally was thought to be very right-brain, but now we know that the right-brain is fundamentally connected to the heart through something called the vagus nerve. So really this is a heart focus.

So, when we look at emotional intelligence, we look at our ability to have empathy, to communicate, to read somebody's facial expression, body language, to have big picture thinking. All of that would be heart-brain, heart skills.

So we know in this modern world, and this is where I think we have to try to convince those naysayers, that in a world where creativity and collaboration and communication are the key skills of the 21st century, 22nd century, we want to use this heart-brain a lot more and get rid of that kind of past stigma. But that's where it came from.

[Nicole Welbanks]

So, what can we do to get more in tune with our heart-brain?

Is the heart-brain something that people might have turned off or ignored? And if so, what would be your advice for people wanting to bring the heart brain back into their daily lives

[Dr. Shimi Kang]

Right, so, you know the gut brain, I talked about self-care, mindfulness, breathing practices.

The heart brain really is about connection. So, one practice that you can do is simply a gratitude practice.

So, people who practice gratitude in any form, whether it's three things or grateful before they go to bed, or, you know, when they drink water, they're just going to really taste that water and be grateful for healthy, clean water.

However, you do it, gratitude is the number one activity, and listen to this, the number one activity linked to better health, happiness and better social positive relationships.

So, simple is not easy. So, simply practicing gratitude and you will get that oxytocin. You will calm down that nervous system.

I like to say anything you wouldn't do if you're being chased by a tiger is good for your human intelligence system. You would never be grateful if you're being chased by a tiger.

So that's one big thing to strengthen our heart-brain. The other thing I'd like to say is social bonding is not socializing or social status or social media. We want to get further into the meaningful social bonding.

[Nicole Welbanks]

Wonderful. When you think about, you know, all of the people who are going to be returning to the office, hopefully in 2022, what advice do you have for leaders for leveraging their heart-brain to really connect with their people in new ways?

And again, kind of help people come off pause as we try to get back to the new normal, I guess?

[Dr. Shimi Kang]

Yeah, so I'll start with some very simple things. Let's try to get people looking at each other again, whether it is on video calls, but we need to see each other’s eyes, each other’s faces.

Those trigger mirror neurons. Those builds our connections.

Nothing wrong with masks, but we've been kind of deprived of, whether it's through social distancing, or masks, or not seeing each other.

So real life social interactions, or with technology. I call it healthy tech. Rather than sending an email or a text, let's try to call someone hear that voice walk into the office, if you're able to. So really easy stuff on that end.

More difficult stuff is getting back to that workplace culture really having an openness.

Now if you're a leader, having an openness to your team, making mistakes, learning from trial and error.

Adaptability is a key skill. We all had to do it in this pandemic, but, really, having that signal to your team that you are OK with that, you understand that that is a pathway to that innovation. In making time to just get to know each other.

Asking those those little questions at the water cooler or the elevator, ‘How was your weekend?’, ‘How are you doing?’

Having those micro moments of social interaction, and of course in any workplace having an offering, or a place to go if you really need more help. Whether that's a workplace mental health or counseling.

And having fun social events, a joke of the day, a riddle. All of that, especially when we do it together in a group, releases endorphins and oxytocin, and we bond when we laughed together.

So many different ways to improve and activate that heart-brain.

[Nicole Welbanks]

Can you give us examples of decisions where listening to the heart really helped a person or a leader make the right decision?

[Dr. Shimi Kang]

Wow, yeah, I can give you some from my own life.

And we actually know, like some very famous, like CEOs. Steve Jobs used to talk about, you know, listening to your heart. Although he was very hard on things like technical skill and design.

Really the heart-brain is connected to our entire nervous system, like I said through that vagus nerve. So sometimes your head-brain has what's called the neocortex here and this is the thinking brain, so we can think ourselves out of our own intuition.

My own personal example is when I started medical school. I didn't really know a lot about doctors or the profession. I didn't have any in my family.

I had a distant kind of family friend, uncle, who was an eye surgeon, and that's all I knew. And I thought I was going to be an eye surgeon, and I did everything to become an eye surgeon, which was super hard.

And then at the very last minute, I ended up applying for research internship, and I was placed in Geneva, Switzerland at the World Health Organization in the Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health.

And I loved it.

My project was looking at the global footprint of mental health trends, and I was just captivated. And my heart was pulling me to make a last-minute decision to go into psychiatry and mental health.

Whereas my logic, which is I just spent a whole lot of time, and many, many years preparing and getting myself to this place where I was going to get a spot in eye surgery.

Anyway, I had to do a lot of thinking, going to nature, calm myself down, get out of my stress response, and really listen in.

And then the last minute I switched. And I'm so glad I did because this is where I belong, and my heart knew it. But my head was talking me out of it.

[Nicole Welbanks]

I think that's a wonderful place for us to wrap up. What a wonderful story from your own personal experience.

Dr. Kang, this has been such an interesting conversation, and you've given us so much to think about.

Thank you for spending some time with us today.

[Dr. Shimi Kang]

Thank you, Nicole. Such great questions and I look forward to chatting again.

[Nicole Welbanks]

On behalf of everyone listening, I want to thank you for sharing this really important information and we're looking forward to our next conversation when we'll explore the third brain. The one we should all be familiar with, the brain in our heads.

Please watch for that interview coming soon.

You can learn more about Dr. Shimi Kang and her fascinating work on her website:

Thanks so much for being with us.

How well do you know your own ‘human intelligence system’? Did you know you have more than one brain?

Follow our series of articles and interviews that encourage all of us to think about how we think.

Watch our interview with Dr. Shimi Kang to learn the science behind the many centres of intelligence found throughout the human body. She explains how you can move from stress to growth by listening to the messages your body sends you.

Shimi Kang is an award-winning medical doctor, researcher, and expert on the neuroscience of innovation, leadership, and motivation. Dr. Kang provides science-based solutions for health, happiness, and achievement in the workplace, classroom, and at home. Dr. Kang is a Clinical Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia, best-selling author, and keynote speaker.