headshotWhile the Enneagram has long been a tool for personal and relational development, it is only recently that its transformative abilities are being researched and supported in neuroscience (e.g. Schulze & Thomas, 2011).  A strong neuro-biological understanding of how the Enneagram supports change is beneficial for three main reasons:

a) It clarifies why true Enneatype change is not a ‘quick-fix’ model but rather requires deliberate and sustained effort,

b) We are more likely to be gentle with ourselves when we fully understand why and where we are getting stuck, and

c) We will be better equipped to explain to our clients (especially the 5’s!) why exactly the Enneagram is so powerful.

In terms of the way the brain functions, therapeutic techniques often employ what is known as a “top down” approach to counseling (though this is undoubtedly changing).  A brief explanation of what this means is that the intervention is directed towards processes that occur in the neocortex – the newest part of the brain, evolutionarily speaking. (Levine, 2010, p. 251-4).

The neocortex handles complex cognitive processes, self-awareness, advanced social behavior, decision making…human stuff.

So, for example, a couple in distress that is encouraged to practice complimenting each other more is being given a top down intervention.  The reason it is at the “top” is because at the bottom of the distress are much deeper feelings (i.e. fear of being abandoned, betrayed, unsafe, unlovable, ashamed etc.)

Nothing against complimenting your partner more, in fact it’s a great thing to do – but it doesn’t address the deeper feelings directly.  The intervention hopes that the compliments will trickle down to the limbic brain (the emotional center of the brain) to create feelings of love and joy, and then make their way down further to the reptilian brain and handle the more primitive survival fears that are being triggered.

It’s all good until you hear that critical tone, or suspect that your partner doesn’t prioritize you…  At that point the amygdala and other “been around for a while” parts of the brain call seniority.  After all, they have been dealing with fear and threat the longest, so they pretty much think they know best.  The neocortex is now offline, and the dance of distress begins all over again (Johnson, 2004, p. 65).

So how is the Enneagram a “bottom up” approach?

We can think of the three instinctual subtypes (self-preservation, social, and sexual) as drives originating in the reptilian brain that revolve around survival.  The passion (emotional habit) of each Enneatype is lodged in the limbic center (Ohlson, 2013).  I think of the passion like the parable of the monkey whose fist is caught clasping food in the jar… If only he would release the food in his hand, he would be free!  Unfortunately, he’s mistakenly convinced that this food is what he needs for nourishment and so he keeps his hand clenched tightly.

Often (though certainly not always) a dominant self-preservation strategy presents as a parasympathetic response in the nervous system.  This is characterized by a low energy approach, and an over-reliance on the auto-regulation (as opposed to dyadically or in a group setting) of distress.  Those who over-rely on the sexual/one-to-one subtype tend to be sympathetically dominant, experiencing high arousal and increased emotional reactivity (especially in the context of love attachments). The social subtype generally appears more energetically split between hyper and hypo arousal.  If unchecked, the social subtype can end up feeling as though they have one foot on the gas and one foot on the brakes (Ohlson, 2013), (Ogden, 2006, p. 28-32).

When we look at the ‘fixation,’ we see the mental preoccupation of the type – the cognitive-behavioral aspect of Enneagram character.  Here we are finally up in the neo-cortex, but it consists of repetitive thought patterns fueled by more primitive fears.

If we assume that these fixations are what we need to address to produce growth, we won’t be reaching the root of the issue.  For example, a Three that is instructed to be less vain (the fixation of the Three) will make no change at all.  The Three can make changes when they see, feel, and fully experience the core beliefs that rest beneath the passion.  This involves looking at deeply buried fears as to whether they are loved for who they are, not what they do.

Certainly there are times when emotional and physical sensations can overwhelm individuals from processing in a bottom-up way (Ogden & Minton, 2000). While this can occur for any type, the Enneagram Four, for example, must often begin personal development by learning “top down” mindfulness and cognitive-behavioral techniques such as those learned in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (Linehan, 1993).

What is essential, regardless of how the work begins, is to remember that the Enneagram a psychology that instructs us to look much deeper than cognitions and behavior.  Going to the party when there is work to do is not what makes someone a Seven.  It’s the hidden passion and fixation motivating that action which says pain and fear must be escaped at all costs.

Further, the Enneagram is not a spirituality that encourages a spiritual bypass – a term coined in 1984 by the psychologist, John Welwood.  Welwood defines a spiritual bypass as “the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs” (Welwood, 2002, p. 207).

In Enneagram language, we can’t spiritual bypass our ego to manifest the “Holy Idea” of the type.  The Six doesn’t shortcut from Doubt to Faith.  He or she becomes aware of the doubt, and dis-identifies with it by integrating the heart and the body.  Only then, with awareness, can Courage (the virtue of the Six) serve as a bridge to the Holy Idea of Faith.

Working with the Enneagram involves deep, bottom up processes that take us to the psychological core of who we think we are, so that we can move beyond that to the deeper truth of who we really are, and thus live guided by our Essence.


Elan BenAmi, MA, is a psychotherapist and the owner of Hearthstone Counseling LLC.  He is also the creator of EnneaApp – a complete mobile Enneagram app for iPhone, iPad, and Android devices.  You can contact Elan at: www.EnneaApp.com


Ohlson, L. (Director) (2013, September 13). Advanced Enneagram Training. Session 1. Lecture conducted from People House, Denver.

Johnson, S. M. (2004). The practice of emotionally focused couple therapy: creating connection (2nd ed.). New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Levine, P. A. (2010). In an unspoken voice: how the body releases trauma and restores goodness. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

Ogden, P., & Minton, K. (2000). Sensorimotor Psychotherapy: One Method for Processing Traumatic Memory. Traumatology, 6 (3).

Ogden, P., Minton, K., & Pain, C. (2006). Trauma and the body: a sensorimotor approach to psychotherapy. New York: W.W. Norton.

Schulze, E., & Thomas, T. (n.d.). The Enneagram and Brain Chemistry. Enneagram Institute: Enneagram Testing & Training. Retrieved October 20, 2013, from http://www.enneagraminstitute.com/articles/NArtTina.asp#.UmRGeJTk-3M

Welwood, J. (2002). Toward a psychology of awakening: Buddhism, psychotherapy, and the path of personal and spiritual transformation. Boston: Shambhala.