This blog post is part of our Fundamentals of the Enneagram series, which takes a deeper dive into all the Enneagram elements - wings, arrows, subtypes, centers of intelligence, growth pathways and more. For an overview of the series, start with our introductory post here.
The three centers of intelligence are an important foundation to the Enneagram. These centers provide a range of information that not only helps us understand our own type’s gifts and challenges, but also why other types see the world so differently. They also provide a way to create greater balance within yourself as part of your everyday growth practice.
In this introduction to the centers, I will provide an overview of what we use each center for, how we get out of balance, and why that happens. For context:
- Body types are Eight, Nine and One
- Heart types are Two, Three and Four
- Head types are Five, Six and Seven
Uses of each center
There are three centers of intelligence, the Body, Heart and Head. Each provides us with basic skills that we need to solve life’s problems.
The Body, or moving center, gives us the ability to take action, get into motion, experience our physical sensations, and exert control of our environment. It guides as to when to take action and when to not take action. It helps us to kinesthetically experience life around us and get things done.
The Heart, or emotional center, gives us the ability to feel our feelings, connect with others emotionally, and be sensitive to their emotional reactions. It helps us to relate to other people, to form and maintain relationships in our lives.
The Head, or thinking center, gives us the ability to gather and analyze information, brainstorm new ways of doing things, and make plans for the future. It helps us to experience and express our thoughts, beliefs and perform other cognitive tasks like visualization and imagination.
To put this into over-simplified stereotypes, you might say the Body type is like an emergency first responder, the Heart type is like a counsellor, and the Head type is like an academic.
How we have a dominant center
Through our inborn type and childhood development, we developed a preference for one of those centers. And the more we used that one center of intelligence, the more we started to believe that was the only appropriate way to navigate the world.
For Body based types, the Eights, Nines and Ones, they became overly focused on their physical sensations as a way to react and respond to the world. They use their body as a way to control their immediate environment and to help them achieve whatever their immediate goal is. And because they are focused on taking immediate action, all Body types focus on being practical, quickly seeking out the one right way to do things and get them done.
All of these types can be quick to take action, even Nines. While Nines are seen as “slothful” or comfort seeking, this applies to their own agenda and opinions. They are quick to take action on doing things for other people or operational tasks that need completing.
Heart based types, the Twos, Threes and Fours, see the world through the lens of their emotions. When they enter a room, their heart energy reads the room, connecting to the hearts of other people, getting a sense of how they feel, and whether they like or dislike that person. And because they focus on maintaining relationships, all Heart types will adapt themselves in some way to be accepted. Just like emotions which are always in flux and flowing and changing, so Heart can adapt just as quickly as emotions change.
This also applies to Threes, who sometimes appear to lack empathy. However Threes are very emotional, they just set their emotions aside in order to focus on appearing successful. They use their emotional intelligence to read other people’s emotions to figure out how they define success and then adapt themselves to that definition.
For Head based types, Fives, Sixes and Sevens, they relate to reality through logical and analytical reasoning. They spend a lot more time thinking than other types. They are constantly scanning the room for possible issues and creating different scenarios for how they could respond. For Head types life is one ongoing SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis, as they need to anticipate everything that might go wrong.
This also applies to Sevens, who might appear happy-go-lucky, but they are constantly planning for different ways to keep themselves busy and never have to slow down.
Our dominant center steals energy ...
In an ideal world, we would use the strengths of each center to deal with life challenges. We would use the Body center when we need to take practical action, the Heart center when we need to connect with others and the Head center when we need to analyze information. However, that is not what happens.
Instead, all our energy becomes focused around one center. For Body types, that energy pools in the gut, for Heart types it centers in the chest and for Head types it is focused around the head. Sometimes their head feels so heavy they need help holding it up!
Our dominant center steals energy from the other two. A Head type might have a great plan to go for a run, but suddenly finds themselves reading the news for hours. Or instead of being fully in their body while walking or driving a car, a Head type listens to a podcast or a Heart type calls a friend to chat.
And while it might be easier for Body types to stay in their body while exercising or driving, they can also get pulled away to stew on a problem they can’t accept or feel the frustration of an issue that isn’t being handled right.
...and dominates our problem solving
When we aren’t aware of this, we try to use the same tools to solve very different problems. A Heart type may not realize they are feeling their thoughts, or Head types may not realize they are thinking their feelings. Our dominant center tricks us into trying to solve all problems with the same tools, instead of realizing we have access to other tools much better suited to the task at hand.
For Body types, once they are in motion, they can find it very hard to stop—especially if that action has become automatic or programmed. Body types find it easier to take action now and analyze later (if at all). And they find it difficult to slow down and get into their feelings.
Heart types can find it challenging to sense their own body, or to disconnect from their feelings and analyze a situation from different angles.
Head types struggle to take action on their ideas, and can easily procrastinate for hours, days or months on something they want. They also find it hard to access their heart and connect with their own feelings as well as the feelings of others.
Starting to observe your center in action
An important part of our development is to create more flexibility in how we approach the world, and be able to use more of the tools and perspectives at our disposal. The key to start on this journey is self-observation.
First, it is important to experience each of these centers in action and see what it feels like. So stand up, move your body, your arms, shake out your legs, and then breathe deeply into your belly for several minutes.
For the Heart center you need another person. Call someone up and chat about something, even just the weather! Focus on interacting and feeling connected.
Finally you can practice being in your head by taking a piece of paper and writing down your thoughts for a few minutes. Just whatever comes in. Notice the conversation you are having with yourself.
Many of us live in societies that overvalue the functions of the Head center. Objective analysis, reasoning, planning and logical understanding are often prized over other skills. While valuing emotional and kinesthetic intelligence is on the rise in recent decades, there is still a prevailing sense that thinking intelligence is somehow better than the others.
This will affect every type. Head types may think they are smarter than other types, instead of approximating the value of relationships and movement. Heart and Body types may struggle in traditional educational environments or institutions and may find themselves needing to carve their own path in order to make the most of their natural style. It’s another reason why we need to find balance.