The team brain concept

James Thornton in “You Have Three Brains” reports on research that we each have, not one but, three brains nested within our skulls – a lizard brain, a dog brain, and a human brain. This got me thinking – if teams are really living systems then they might have 3 brains too?


The Evolution of the different brains

According to the research the lizard brain evolved first – it is very small and just controls the very basics such as breathing, vision and bodily movements and the elemental emotions such as anger or lust.

Then apparently the dog brain came along (limbic system) growing on top of the lizard brain and controlling the basic functions (in a more advanced way) and adding in more complex emotions such as love and loyalty.

Then finally the human brain appreared (neo-cortex) and with it all the sophistication with goes with language.

The brains don't have much to do with each other

James goes on to say:

“This neo-cortex is functionally semi-independent from the lizard and dog brains. That is why our experience is so odd. Consider this: language lies in the human brain, but emotions lie within the separate dog and lizard brains. So the emotions are in a different world from language entirely. Not only that, reason too lives in the new human brain while emotions live in the older brains. The lizard and dog brains are running their emotion programs while the human brain is running its thinking programs. They don’t have too much to do with each other. “

So do teams have 3 brains too?

Teams would use their Lizard brain for the fast instinctive reactions.

They would use their Dog brain for all the social, relationship and networking aspects of the team.

Finally they would use their Human brain for all their planned, reasoned and strategic work.

If this is true how would it be organised?

There are two main options:

Certain team members playing certain brain roles?


The three brains being an emergent property of the team as a whole?

My sense would be the latter is much more likely.

So how many brains does your team have?

This could be a useful quick diagnostic for a team

Question 1: How many of the team brains are functioning?

Question 2: Are the team brains which are functioning working together or is one dominating the others?

A good objective for bioteaming is to create teams where all three brains are not just functioning but also working in harmony.

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It seems to me that extending the 3-brain notion to teams is a metaphor rather than a tested observation. As such, it may be useful for talking about team behavior, but it is too tenuous a connection for robust planning. Far better to look at the "scaffolding" or mutual support that takes place in a team.

That said:

In terms of Lizard brain, one would really look at decision making and conversational dynamics in times of stress.

Dog brain would be a metaphor for the loyalty, cohesiveness and norming and performing that occurs.

And neo-cortex would be reserved for advanced, higher activities, such as long range planning.


Thanks - thats very helpful.

I think the metaphor is the right way to think about it - as a good simple way to discuss different dimensions of team behavior

But not to place too much weight on it as a scientific team theory


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