Are you stuck in The Tangle?

Indigenous Aboriginal understanding recognises we have three brains. The smallest, our logical brain, sits in our head and is referred to as 'The Tangle'. The next biggest brain is our emotional brain centred in our heart. And the biggest of our brains is our instinctual brain, rooted in our gut.


In the modernised world, it could be seen that human identity is primarily associated with thought; that the head brain defines who people are, rather than being a sophisticated tool of logic that is incredibly effective at problem-solving. Some Aboriginals might say that modernised humans can complicate their lives, because they can often use the wrong brain at the wrong time.

What are the three brains?

The head brain

'Nandu-ka-ru' translates as tangle. It's the same Aboriginal word used to describe both the head brain and a fishing net that's knotted and muddled.

Any tool can stop working properly if it's not maintained and used as intended. The Aboriginal concept of the three brains sees the primary use of our head brain as a tool of logic and problem-solving. But, if we're unable to put this powerful tool down once a problem's been solved, it can all end up in a serious tangle.

Many modernised humans now live almost entirely in their heads, where thinking can become a frantic and tiring succession of uncertainties and problems. And when some of us can’t stop thinking, we can become shaped by anxiety and fear.

Living in fear can result in a perception that the world is more and more separate from ourselves, as something potentially threatening. Feeling threatened often leads to isolation and disconnection and a withdrawal of compassion toward ourselves and others.

The heart brain

Within Aboriginal beliefs, the heart brain is centred in emotional connection with oneness and belonging, practising the restriction of 'mine' and developing the stronger sense of 'ours'.

A key aspect of Aboriginal spirituality is that it's earth-centred (rather than god-centred), that land is family and everything within it is conscious life. Every rock, mountain, river, plant and animal is sentient (able to perceive or feel), having its own individual personality and life force.

To be related, connected, invested, and as one with everything in our living experience, can offer us an endless bond with our emotional sense of belonging and relevance. That's a very different bond to the succession of uncertainty and problems that unchecked thinking can generate.

The gut brain

A head-driven approach to living is flipped, as we're encouraged to return to our instinctual intelligence grounded in our gut brain, the biggest of the three.

One (not very Aboriginal) definition of instinct: "Affectively charged judgments that arise through rapid, nonconscious, and holistic associations."

There are four basic ways we make sense of life; our mental, emotional, physical, and purposeful experiencing. Purposeful experiencing is a sense of purposeful connection with life e.g. through relationships, spiritual principles, faith or science-based understanding.

Knowing the dangers of getting stuck in The Tangle, Aboriginal wisdom would likely prioritise our list differently:

  1. Purposeful
  2. Physical
  3. Emotional
  4. And lastly, mental experiencing

How to connect with the gut brain

How do people become more connected with the gut brain? A start could be by consciously connecting with it; sinking down through the brains.

Firstly, just observing thinking. Acknowledging how relentlessly thoughts can stream when unchecked. We could help out while we are in that busiest of brains, by checking the accuracy of our thinking. When affected by hurt and worry, we can misinterpret our thinking and it can become inaccurate. And, maybe we can encourage our head brain to delegate to the other two brains more often. It’s always on the go. It deserves a break.

Secondly, we could help our heart brain to be heard by ourselves and others. An initial focus on the truth of how we feel can offer us a more accurate bearing on our position, over the story of what we think. And when our feelings are compassionately heard, they're less likely to get in the way of effective responses being actioned. The outcomes we then face can be much better managed.

And thirdly, we can reunite with our sensory, bodily and 'earth-centred' connection with everything in the present moment. Making time to ‘be’ from our bodies by scanning with them for their feedback, offering them gratitude for what they do for us, giving the focus over to each of our senses and listening to the intelligence they offer, asking our gut brain its sense of the choices and options we live. Aiming to be in our being.

Aiming to untangle.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Belfast BT1 & Cambridge CB1
Written by Joe Carter, MBACP | BA Hons | Integrative Counselling Dip
Belfast BT1 & Cambridge CB1

Joe Carter. MBACP. Founder and Lead Therapist of The Bulb Booth.

Now a part of the therapeutic community in the North of Ireland, in 2002 Joe began practicing in Bury St Edmunds with one of the UK's leading rehabilitation services of the time; Focus12. Here he developed his specialism in recovery from addiction.

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