The Science of C-IQ: Unlocking Conversational Neuroscience Six Brains

In Converation with the Safety Collaborators Podcast

Episode 042

Aug 30, 2023

In this episode...we continue our Conversational Intelligence®, aka C-IQ series, Conversational Neuroscience

[Listen at approximately 00:12]

Have you ever wondered why we act and react the way we do and what is actually going on in our brains?

This is episode five of our Conversational Intelligence or C-IQ series, and in case you're wondering what came before this:

  • In Episode 38, we introduced C-IQ and shared the learning activity, 
  • In Episode 39, we moved into the five essentials of Conversational Intelligence, 
  • In Episode 40, we moved on to the three levels of conversations, and last week, 
  • In Episode 41, we explored the foundations of trust and what that means.

If you've missed any of those, they're fabulous, and we highly recommend you go and listen to them. If you're joining us for the first time, here's an overview of what is Conversational Intelligence, referred to as C-IQ.

"Conversational Intelligence® (C-IQ) is the hardwired and learnable ability, to connect, navigate and grow with others – a necessity in building healthier and more resilient organisations in the face of change. C-IQ begins with trust, and ends with a high-quality relationship and business success." - Judith E. Glaser

Today, we will delve into part five of the C-IQ series - Conversational Neuroscience - about our brains and the hormones and chemicals that impact our waking and sleeping moments. 

Today's conversation is about creating an awareness of how our brains are made up and what that means for us in our conversations.

We don't claim to be experts but rather eager students on a continuous learning journey, and we are excited to share the collective wisdom that we have gained so far and to learn with you along the way. 

Let's expand or explore what brains we have because there's more than just one.

Neuroscience has come a long way. We talk about the wisdom of the six brains, how they interplay and react to each other, and why they're important in our conversations.

So, we will start at the base and by base, we mean the gut.

One of our first brains (the last one added to this mix) is our gut brain, followed by our heart brain, and then we go into our primitive brain, limbic brain, neocortex brain, and prefrontal cortex. 

Now, the primitive, the limbic, the neocortex, and the prefrontal cortex make up the bit in our head. Inside that, there are many, many, many different components to our brain; however, in the context of conversations and how we operate daily, this is all we need to know as mere mortals who are not neuroscientists.

Most people talk about the primitive brain, which is our fear-fright-flight area of the brain. It lives at the stem of our head, so it is at the top of our nervous system that meets the rest of our head. 

And what we mean by primitive is that it's the oldest part of our brain.

Inside our primitive brain is a little almond-shaped (literally the size of an almond) area called the amygdala, which many people have heard of, and the amygdala is the fear-fright-flight component to us. It is on guard 24/7, and we often refer to the amygdala as our security guard. 

Think about the role of a security guard - well, that's its job.

Everything that we look at, our senses, our smell, our sight, everything gets filtered through that part of our brain. And it's always looking for danger; it doesn't stop. 

We're not looking for sabre-toothed tigers and the rest of it anymore. But we are constantly surveying our environment for anything unusual that we don't understand or different from what we expect.

The Six Brains

[Listen at approximately 06.02]

The next brain that's really important in all of this is our limbic brain which is our emotional centre.

When we talk about emotions, and we have lots of conversations around emotional literacy, emotional intelligence, this is what we're talking about – we're talking about that part of the brain that is driven by emotion.

Now interesting, this is where the gut and heart brain become really important because they are the two other brains in our body constantly feeding the limbic region, which is also the fast part of our brain.

Our new brain, the prefrontal cortex, is actually the slow brain; it's not the fast one.

Professor Steve Peters, the author of the book 'The Chimp Paradox,' talks a lot about this area, and he calls it the monkey brain.

When you think about that feeling, where your brain is going all over the place, 100 miles an hour, and you're forgetting half the things you're supposed to be doing, that's your limbic brain in full flight.

Now throw into that a bit of the primitive brain [your amygdala], and your security guard is going,

'Well, I don't know what you're talking about there, so I'm going to shut everything down now. And I'm either going to hit something, get emotional, pass out, or I'm just going to run away and hide because it's all too much.'

If you think about it from that perspective and ask when the clever brain, the one in the front, kicks in - well, it's the last one to kick in.

In simple terms, it's like the unconscious and the conscious; the limbic and the primitive brain is an automated unconscious reaction.

But when it starts moving into the new brain, it becomes more conscious, and you're choosing how you will react here. Unfortunately, if the other two have taken over, you're knackered; good luck in switching!

In high-hazard industries, where we spend a lot of time and have lots of conversations with people, our primitive and limbic regions are in play constantly because we're asking people to be hyper-vigilant; we're asking them to be safe.

We're asking them to be on red alert but also to think about their actions, which means they must control those limbic primitive areas.

There's another brain we still need to mention: the neocortex, which is like the computer, a filing cabinet of our memories, stories, etc., which we also need to tap into - so it's our knowledge bank.

  • What do I need to do to be safe?
  • What are the steps I need to take?
  • How do I breathe, calm down, verbalize, think a bit more, and then allow my conscious rational language, which also happens in the neocortex?

The rational brain kicks in, and we follow the steps that we need to.

So this is the power of the six brains; they all work together when we're having conversations; all of them are in play.

In our last episode, we talked about in that moment of contact; in 0.07 seconds, we start to decide whether we trust or not. That's our limbic and primitive brain in action. You have very little control over that, and to a large degree, you are not even conscious of it.

All of these minds and brains are working all the time; they don't stop, they don't go to sleep, they're busy all the time. Interestingly, this is also why we need to rest the brains – all of them.

Even our gut brain needs a rest from food.
If we overeat, it's exhausted; the gut brain sends 400 more signals per second to the brain [the primary brain] than the other way around.

The gut sends more information up rather than the brain down, which is phenomenal.

The Brain & Stress

[Listen at approximately 10.53]

What happens when you contemplate your reactions, how you feel, and where you sense things when you're overly stressed? You get a stomach ache. If you're fearful, you feel nauseous, or your stomach goes into a slight spasm.

We use a term called 'Heart sore.'

When you're feeling sad, or something's distressing, you actually feel it in your chest; your heart hurts. It's one of those brains in action again.

What comes to mind is the research being done into how you can die of a broken heart.
So many things were seen as old wives' tales or myths that science is starting to bring to the forefront with evidence.

What's exciting to us is the coming together of everything - we almost lost knowledge while trying to become knowledgeable, and we are refining and re-establishing that knowledge.

Think of Aristotle - he's not a young man; he's been around for a long time.

And yet, we still reference him today because he had knowledge of the moving into our conscious brain where it's no longer flight-fright-freeze; moving into where we can learn things like empathy and compassion, where we can learn how to make better judgments, it becomes a conscious way of being rather than just reacting out of an emotive state.

Other elements of the brain are also important here, such as the centres for our chemicals.

We have other areas like the hypothalamus, which is the brain's drugstore.

It's the chemist that sits there and is constantly releasing:

  • 'Okay, you're feeling a bit scared, let me give you some cortisol', or
  • 'Hmm, you're feeling warm and fuzzy, let's give you some shots of oxytocin', and
  • 'Oh, you got a fright? Here's some adrenaline.'

There are quite a lot of hormones that are involved. But the two key ones [from our conversational perspective] that we tend to talk about are Cortisol and Oxytocin.

They all come from the brain but are very close to our limbic region.

So again, when we're uncomfortable or don't trust the situation, we feel it first. Again, the gut, the heart, and our physiology come into play before the brain even kicks in and long before our prefrontal cortex, our executive brain, actually kicks in.

When you get that sense of goosebumps or the hair stands up on the back of your neck, your body tells you something's happening here.

We always tell people to pay attention even if they get evidence suggesting there's nothing wrong.

Don't push the envelope, particularly the more unsafe the environment potentially is. For the most part, things are pretty safe these days, but we need to be aware, and some people will have more intuitiveness towards that than others.

We're all different, so we can't say this is a blanket sweep, but we know that those are the key areas of the brain that we can think about:

  • How do we regulate different components of that brain?
  • How do we activate a prefrontal cortex before the limbic or the primitive brain kicks in?

Or perhaps it's more important that we learn more about ourselves and understand our triggers and where they might come from.

It truly impacts our conversations, our ability to have conversations and our conversational patterns.


[Listen at approximately 15.11]

Can the brain change?
Or are we set in our ways by the time we finish school?

It used to be that once you had what you had, that was it. But things are more complex now; we've come to realise.


Around 15 years ago, I delved into the world of neuroplasticity just as the broader conversation was taking its first steps. Unlike the rapid leaps of AI, the field of neuroscience was undergoing significant shifts at a more measured pace.

One fascinating revelation emerged during my explorations – the connection between the gut and the brain.

When most people think of serotonin, they instinctively link it to the brain's mood-regulating functions.

Now, here's where it gets even more intriguing.

Science appears to be veering toward a new direction – though it's essential to remember that this is an ongoing journey. Consider the discussions about mental health, wellness, and even mental fitness.

Now, let's consider this staggering fact: an immense 90% of that serotonin neurotransmitter has its home in the gut, not the brain, and plays a pivotal role in dictating our mood, appetite, and sleep quality.

When these elements are off-balance, it begs the question – how can the rest of our system function optimally? How can our rapid-firing emotional brain find its equilibrium? And what chance does our prefrontal cortex stand?

This realisation made me reflect on the vital importance of caring for our gut.

Remember the saying, 'You are what you eat'? – the sustenance we put into our bodies can be the finest remedy or the deadliest poison. It leaves me contemplating whether my lack of self-care might unknowingly affect my serotonin balance.

On the bright side, there's room for transformation – but that's a discussion for another time.

Shifting gears, let's consider how my mood directly impacts the quality of our conversations. If I'm grappling with a stomach ache or simply feeling unwell, how does that affect our interaction?

Similarly, how does it influence our exchanges after a night of restless sleep? When I'm not in a space of trust, where I can openly admit, "Today's not going great," how much does it compromise the quality of our conversation?

Often, this results in 'putting on a brave face' while attempting to mask the underlying turmoil and often failing to do so. Everything is interconnected. How we navigate our daily lives and engage with others – it's all intertwined.

When we're having conversations, it's more than what's going on cognitively.

We listen to the words and the language we can hear.

  • What are the conversational patterns that we can see?
  • What are the emotional mood patterns that we can see and hear?
  • What is the body shape like?
  • What are the eyes doing?
  • What is the colour of their skin?

You might see them fidgeting with their hands if you're in person.
All of this is part of this conversation.

Now, back to the question about change – absolutely, it's possible.

It's what we call neuroplasticity.

We've got this fantastic video from Sentis that visually breaks down how the brain works and how we can reshape our habits.

So, the days of thinking we're stuck with our habits are long gone.

How It Works

[Listen at approximately 19.15]

Alright, let's embark on a new journey here. Halting this one to initiate a fresh start – it's not quite as straightforward as it might seem.

Imagine it as a dynamic power grid or a bustling highway with cars on the move. Think of it like walking down the same footpath each day. Continue on that path, and it will eventually wear down or widen.

Similarly, when it comes to the brain, if we're keen to establish new habits or embrace new ways of being, we need to put those fresh approaches into practice. And with time, if that's our chosen route, it might signal,

"Alright, that familiar way of being is gradually shrinking in our neural pathway – getting smaller. Meanwhile, this newfound habit I'm cultivating is expanding, growing larger."

That's what we call neuroplasticity.

The brain remains in a perpetual state of flux, always in motion and evolving. And remember that food's role in this dialogue is crucial, although we'll save that for another occasion.

What excites us is how this concept challenges the old saying that "a leopard can't change its spots" or that one can't alter their actions or behaviours.

In reality, change is possible.

Yet, if you've spent 35 years doing the same thing, that's an ingrained neural pathway – a well-worn trail. So, forging a new path will demand conscious effort, and it won't happen overnight. Deciding to change won't magically propel you into a new direction instantaneously.

So, there's no need to berate yourself for reverting to old habits or ways of doing things. Instead, it's about understanding and acknowledging it.

Think of it this way:

"Okay, that well-trodden path is still there. But now, I'll hit pause, reframe my perspective, refresh my approach. I'll tread down the new path I'm carving out – shaping it as my fresh way of being."

An integral part of this process is recognising your triggers.

What prompts you to return to the old path rather than embracing the new one? Could a new reward system be of use? It doesn't have to be a grand reward; it might be a simple internal pat on the back. The form isn't crucial – what matters is the personal resonance. So yes, that's an important aspect.

Now, let's come back to the realm of conversations.

By now, you will have realised that engaging in a conversation isn't merely about opening your mouth and producing sounds. It's far more intricate than that. If only it were that straightforward, right? But no, it's not – while it might seem simple, it's anything but.

Yet, at the same time, it's not about overcomplicating matters.

It's about cultivating a heightened awareness – being mindful that you might want to make a few tweaks. How do you go about that? Perhaps the key takeaway is to gain insight into how our chemical blends directly influence our conversations.

In our previous episode, when we were talking about trust, we spoke about how we down-regulate cortisol and up-regulate oxytocin. These are the two conversational chemicals that are constantly in play.

Also interesting is that cortisol, as mentioned earlier, is not a bad chemical; it's only bad when there's too much. We need cortisol to do stuff to move forward; we need it, and it gets us excited about things, which are also very much influenced by our environment when we have too much cortisol.

So cortisol is known as the mobilising neurotransmitter, and oxytocin is the bonding neurotransmitter in different formats.

E042_The Science of C-IQ: Unlocking Conversational Neuroscience Six Brains - Image Cortisol & Oxytocin

We need to have a healthy mix of both. But often, what we see in conversational challenges is that there's too much cortisol in play.

So if you're not feeling well, sick, unhappy with your boss, or in an environment that doesn't reward vulnerability, the list is very long - your cortisol will go up.

Interestingly, every shot of cortisol can last up to 27 hours in the body, but one shot of oxytocin, the countermeasure to cortisol, only lasts three to four hours.

So, we need to find constant reinforcement of oxytocin.

That's why you'll see some people who seem to be in a permanently bad mood because maybe they don't get enough of the other chemical - and you can get this in many ways.

When discussing conversation intelligence and the interplay of these two hormonal neurotransmitters, the question emerges:

How do we down-regulate cortisol levels and up-regulate oxytocin?

Interestingly, each of us has conversational patterns, often unbeknownst to us – they're our blind spots. These patterns are present in all of us.

But don't worry, we can actually run a test.

The C-IQ Catalyst

[Listen at approximately 24.32]

It's called the C-IQ catalyst, and it's literally ten questions. The results are entirely different for everybody because we have our own set of depleting conversational behaviours and nourishing conversational behaviours.

So when you look at the results, you have five columns of red, which represent cortisol and five columns of green, which represent oxytocin - and that's true for everybody.

What we're looking for, then, is what we call pair bonds.

So, looking at it, we see that you think you're this, but that's a cortisol or depleting behaviour. But you think you're also this over here, which is nourishing. Still, one's counteracting the other.

Without going into much more detail, we're looking for how to downregulate the cortisol or the depleting behaviours. It's about minimizing those types of conversations that trigger via Power Play, uncertainty, the need to be right and groupthink - they tend to be driven by higher cortisol levels.

On the up-regulate, we're looking to reinforce behaviours that inspire transparency, build relationships, offer understanding, shared visions, some truths and empathy.

So it's how we appreciate each other; showing appreciation is a dose of oxytocin. On the other side, judging someone instead of appreciating them will be a shot of cortisol.

If you're withholding knowledge, it's a depleting behaviour; if you're sharing knowledge, it's a nourishing behaviour.

The below image gives you a sense of what that looks like.

E042_The Science of C-IQ: Unlocking Conversational Neuroscience Six Brains - Image Down-Regulating & Up-Regulating

Perhaps you are thinking, 'Do I do those things?'

We all do those things on both sides at different times and in different amounts.
We're looking for how to be more nourishing, more often, in our conversations rather than depleting.

It's a helpful guide also.

If you're thinking of a challenging relationship you're having at the moment - what are you seeing showing up in your conversation?

Is it depleting conversations? Then, will that relationship continue to be challenging? How can you reword and reframe it to be a more nourishing conversation?

It is not easy and takes work, which is why it is helpful to have somebody who understands or a coach that you can check in with and say,

'This is where I'm at, and this is what's happening. How can I change? Let's explore this and co-create the future I want to see.'

Having a conversation with a coach, a like-minded person, or a friend you trust is a great place to start.

A Few Fun Facts about the Heart, the Gut and the Brain

There was a lot of information in this episode and so we thought to end with a few fun facts:

  • Sixty percent of the human brain is made of fat.
  • The human gut is lined with more than 100 million nerve cells.
  • The heart has about 40,000 neurons that operate independently of the brain.
  • The gut sends about 400 more messages to the brain than the brain to your gut.
  • Your brain's storage capacity is considered virtually unlimited.
  • Brain information travels up to an impressive 268 miles per hour. (No wonder we are tired!)
  • It's a myth that you only use 10 percent of your brain.
  • A piece of brain tissue the size of a grain of sand contains 100,000 neurons and 1 billion synapses.
  • Your heart, head, and gut brain communicate through the vagus nerve. It's one of the longest nerves in the body. The vagus nerve's role is to act as a communication centre for all your internal organs. The nerve starts at your head and goes all the way down to your abdomen.
  • 90% of your body's serotonin is found in the gut.
  • The human brain can generate about 23 watts of power (enough to power a lightbulb). No wonder we have lightbulb moments

About the Show

Our purpose in sharing this podcast is to have a chinwag (conversation) to help people change how they think and behave about safety. 

We do this by engaging in dialogue and testing the levels of trust and psychological safety, which are core to organisational culture. Making safety part of your DNA so that your people speak up, show up, do right, and become safer every day for yourself, your team, and your business.

We will explore topics related to organisational and safety culture, leadership, the language of risk, emotional literacy, psychological safety, conversational agility, intercultural intelligence, and whatever else pops up during our conversations—sharing our experiences and learnings. 

We intend to share nuggets of wisdom that will challenge your perspectives, potentially solve a nagging problem, share actions you can implement, and give you at least one aha moment.

And, if you enjoyed the show and gained value, please share with just one other person to help spread the word.

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