Triune Brain Theory – 3 Brains of Training

Surprisingly we don’t have one brain but three, and they are all important for training. The triune brain theory maps our brain’s evolution and was developed by Paul D MacLean starting in 60‘s and fully developed by his 1990 book ‘The Triune Brain in Evolution’.

Essentially this model divides the modern human brain into three parts, based on our evolutionary ancestry. These are the reptile brain responsible for base drives, the mid-brain or limbic system responsible for emotions and memory, and the neocoretx responsible for “higher” brain functions. To envisage these “three brains” imagine a large man’s thumb, a fist encasing the thumb and a hand over the front of the fist. These are the (very) rough sizes and shapes of the the reptile brain (the “thumb” on top of your spinal cord at the lower back of the head), the early mammalian (a complex mix of weird shaped tubes and pipes – some look a bit like ears – roughly the size of large fist) and late mammalian brain (walnutty stereotypical brain matter – the hand over the top)…Now you don’t need to take out your brain to read the rest of the article.

Triune Brain Theory – A Useful Model and a Disclaimer

The triune brain theory has been updated and surpassed by modern neuroscientists and developmental biologists who have found that things are more complex and animals not so easy to pigeon hole (even bird-brained pigeons). The theory remains useful as a model however and is surprisingly “sticky” as it appeals to initiative notions of the different capacities people have. It is for example meaningful for many people to distinguish between “head, heart and hands” or “thinking, feeling and gut instinct” as the model would suggest. For my own part I am not a brain surgeon (I remember scratching all three brains during the cognitive neuroscience part of my psychology degree) but a trainer interested in useful frameworks and metaphors. This article is intended more as a stimuli for thinking about the different aspects of being human and how these relate to learning and development than a cutting-edge anatomy lesson.

The New Brain

The neocortex, found only in certain “higher” mammals is associated with functions such as language, abstraction, planning and logical thought. This is the newest and very human part of the brain that has allowed us to make I-phones and atom bombs, design innovative training courses and enables delegates to day-dream about other things while we’re boring them with slide-shows. Dolphins and apes also have a neocortex, and you are using it now to read this.

The neocortex is also slower under pressure than other parts of the brain and when stressed can be effectively turned off leaving other more “primitive” parts to take over. If you’ve ever said or done something “in the heat of the moment” this is what likely happened.

The majority of training out there is designed by clever humans using this part of the brain, and involves addressing this part of the brain only. This means that trainers present information, try and convey data and make logical arguments. Much traditional training and most e-learning is very guilty of this. Sadly this approach is very limited for a number of reasons that will be become clear. Often I think about getting “past” the neocoretx these days – for example presenting some facts about how emotional intelligence has been shown by research to be three times better than IQ at predicting career success at the start of an workshop for example – rather than engaging purely with the cerebral, cognitive parts of delegates brains.
The illusion is that this part of the brain runs the show and while we can use it to delay gratification for example, it is also true that more often people make decisions on a emotive intuitive associative level and THEN rationalise it. Think of every advert on TV, advertisers know what most trainers don’t, that it is not well reasoned logical arguments that change behaviour, but beauty, fear, love, belonging, inspiration, etc.

I also don’t want to take this too far and the neocoretx can get a bad rep in personal development circles. It is this part of the brain that enables delegates to envisage applying training back in the office for example (it can be viewed as a kind of virtual reality system for testing new ideas), and is also concerned with identity and meaning (along with the limbic system), critical areas to engage in successful training.

The Limbic System (Midbrain)

The limbic system – or midbrain – consists of the septum, amygdala, hypothalamus, hippocampal complex, and cingulate cortex. We share this part of the brain with cats and dogs which is why they make such good pets…compared to stick insects which don’t have it and are let’s face it…a bit rubbish. This part of the brain is responsible for the tricky, juicy, wonderful, annoying emotional elements that make us what we are, as well as memory and other aspects of learning. Any trainer worth her salt is both engaging with this part of their delegate’s brain and making sure it doesn’t “hijack” the whole show and disable the neocoretx.

Ways to Involve the Emotions in Training

Emotive memories stick as the limbic system is involved with both affect and learning, so if you want to help delegates remember training don’t just put up a wordy PowerPoint show (which has primarily neocortical appeal), instead try some of the following:

  • connect what is being taught to what participants really care about
  • delegates don’t gives a damn about our latest training theory or flashy quadrant diagram, they care about their lives and their values. Connect EVERYTHING to people’s real world experience, practical work applications and what they hold dear. NB, their values are almost certainly not the official organisational ones on the wall.
  • get interactive

Training that keeps people involved, active, creative and playful, works as it has emotional content. I recommend not talking for more than ten minutes at a stretch and rarely more than five. Tell a man how to fish and he’ll get the rod the wrong way around, turn him into a dolphin and Nemo is in trouble…or something like that. Involving the body and movement in training is particularly effective – more on this later.

Use imagery, video and music

Imagery, video and music spark emotions, and encourage personal engagement. Think of the success of TV, radio and Youtube. Music and other training room aesthetics can be used to create moods beneficial to learning…If I could have attached a dramatic soundtrack to this article I would have.

Ask people how they feel!

Acknowledge mood and emotions directly. In UK corporate culture there is still much emotional repression, denial and cynicism so do this with care, and is still well worth doing. Name the limbic elephant that is always in the room.

The Triune Brain - Triune Brain Theory

The Brain Stem (Reptilian Brain)

The oldest and most critical part of the brain for survival is the basal ganglia – sometimes called the reptilian brain as birds and other non mammals also primarily driven by this structure. It is responsible for the four F’s – flight, fight, freeze…and reproduction, to quote my Newfield Coaching colleague Chris Balsley (Google “triune brain Newfield” for his excellent video on the three brains and stress). The reptilian brian works quickly and simply and takes care of the basics. When things get tricky it also takes over from the other brains to ensure survival. Because of this it is vital that trainers look after these basic needs at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid. This may sound obvious but I have been in training rooms that were simply not comfortable physically (too hot or too cold for example) or with delegates who had not eaten all day – so ensure the air-con is working and provide snacks and plenty of water. Alcohol also turns off the higher brain areas and so I suggest banning even light lunchtime drinking on courses and refuse to work in environments such as some management colleges and team building weekends where drinking is the norm.

Another critical issue concerning the reptilian brain is safety. If an organism feels threatened all other considerations are overridden in order to escape or eliminate the source of concern…and if this is you as a trainer, you are therefore in trouble! Because humans are social animals and can engage the brain stem thorough modelling in the neocortex “safety” has a wider meaning than just not pointing guns at each other (though I’ve found this is a great place to start when working in conflict zones).

Ways to make training safe and build trust

Confidentiality agreements

Explicit and specific confidentiality agreements which people have a chance to discuss and actively agree too (by raising hands for example) are a basic foundation of “safe” training environments.

Discuss learning

Many people have learnt some odd ideas about learning through negative experiences in childhood. I often feel sad about these and so try to establish healthier narratives through a meta learning conversation at the start of many courses. People may for example believe that it is not OK to make mistakes, that learning is always competitive or that learning is about trying to please the teacher…I mean trainer.

Opt-out and calibration

For people to feel safe their needs for autonomy and choice must be respected. If people really feel free not to take part in any exercise (and the “really” bit is crucial as people may perceive threats when there are none, and even gentle encouragement can be seen as cajolement) then when they do take part you will get true involvement not compliance, and the reptilian brain won’t be triggered. Equally exercises which may be intense (useful for engaging the limbic system) can be offered in several forms some of which are less full-on so people can choose their own level of challenge.

Dominance hierarchies and group norms

Watch out for challenging existing dominance hierarchies in training, which may be official (making the boss look like a fool) or unofficial (sometimes it’s the experienced secretary who really says what goes for example, and “flat” organisations often have their own pecking orders). Prestige, dominance and power issues can activate some pretty primitive parts of the brain so be careful. The same also goes for group norms such as dress-code which may meet some basic needs for belonging. When I work with business people I wear a suite, when I work with technicians combats and a t-shirt.

Do what you say you will do

Being impeccable with your word builds trust, even when this means doing something unpopular like starting on time after a break! Reliability is crucial for letting the reptilian brain relax.

Be sincere, don’t be a hypocrite

People have great intuitive BS detectors so if you don’t mean and embody exactly what you say and recommend as a trainer people will sense it and lose trust. This may seem obvious and yet there are sometimes pressures for a trainer not to be (e.g. management stating a hidden agenda, a perceived need to be perfect, etc).

Note It starts before the training

Safety for delegates starts with the commissioning process and how they are discussed and enrolled on the course. I have found it is utterly pointless working with delegates who “have to be there” for example (choice again).

Embodied Training, Mindfulness and Integration

One field of study that I highly recommend in light of the triune theory is embodied training. Coming from the work of teachers in the US such as Richard Strozzi Heckler and Paul Linden embodied learning is now catching on in the UK. It is quick, effective and innovative. It uses posture, breathing and non-athletic movement to enrich leadership, stress management, team building and others training areas. In short it uses all three brains, and also provides “centring techniques” to counteract limbic and reptilian “brain takeovers”. These often involve mindfulness (awareness) of the body and breath, “grounding” techniques such as those used in the martial arts and yoga and reconnecting to what one really cares about. Mindfulness is a hot topic in health and wellbeing and increasingly infiltrating corporate learning and development environments, it has also been shown to alter brain structure and improve function.

For me the integration of all three brains is only possible with mediative and embodied disciplines which until recently have not been available to people working in organisations. Happily things are changing.

Why is Training So Heady, and Why is This a Problem?

Why when the other parts of the brain are so vital for learning is only the neocoretx general addressed in organisational training? Many organisations feel safe addressing purely cognitive aspects as they are less “personal” and many trainers complicit in this through fear in becoming beginners in new domains and ignorance of the possibilities. I would like to issue a gentle challenge therefore to the training community to involve body, emotions as well as traditional cognitive aspects in training. This is important not only so that training is effective for the reasons outlines above, but also because it enables a different set of values in organisational life. By both moving away from solely a logical neocortical orientation and developing healthy management (rather than attempted repression) of aggressive and fearful lower brain highjacks I believe people can become more human at work. What I mean by this is that they will no longer be reduced to cogs in machines, statistics and numbers, or run from one emergency or emotional overwhelm to the next like frightened animals, but can act with compassion, consideration and there-brain intelligence.

About the author: Mark Walsh, lead trainer at Integration Training

Mark Walsh is the UK’s leading specialist in “embodied” approaches to management training and the MD of Integration Training. He leads courses in stress management, time management, communication training, team building and leadership training around the world. Clients include everyone from Dutch telecoms executives, UNICEF, Sussex University, Buddhist groups and West African military officers. Mark draws on his training experiences in the business world as well as from his academic background in psychology (Bsc hons), martial arts and charity work in areas of conflict. He is among the most followed trainers in the UK on Twitter and writes the Google number two ranked management training blog.


  1. Susan