Book Review: The Neurobiology of the Enneagram

A brain inside an Enneagram symbol

Is there a correlation between Enneagram type and neurobiology?

Saleh Vallander makes a compelling case in The Neurobiology of the Enneagram. Vallander is a medical doctor who teaches the Enneagram and Myers-Briggs models of personality. This is the first of two books of Vallander’s I’ve read; the other is The Enneagram, Myers-Briggs and the Brain. I’ll review that fascinating book separately.

The author uses the work of well-known neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp as the foundation for exploring the Enneagram and neurobiology. Panksepp came up with seven primary emotional networks, which Vallander maps to aspects of the Enneagram. These networks are FEAR, RAGE, GRIEF, SEEKING, LUST, CARE and PLAY.

Vallander maps FEAR, RAGE and GRIEF to the three Centers of Intelligence – but there’s a twist. Fear is the underlying emotion of the Head types (5,6,7) and Rage goes with the Intuitive types (8,9,1), but the primary emotion for the Heart types (2,3,4) is shame, not grief. The author says that shame is actually a secondary emotion, and we’re trying to get down to Panksepp’s primary emotions. So, grief is the primary emotion, which then causes shame as a secondary emotion.

This makes sense when I think about how Heart types view themselves as lacking inherent lovability. Imagine the grief that must cause them! Then the shame kicks in, because if they aren’t inherently lovable, that must be because something is wrong with them.

Instincts and the Enneagram

The remaining four primary emotional networks (SEEKING, LUST, CARE and PLAY) are then mapped to the three dominant instincts: the self-preservation, the sexual and the social instincts.

How does that math work? Well, the social instinct is aligned with the Care and the Play networks, so it gets two primary emotional networks. Then the self-preservation instinct is the Seeking emotional network, which has to do with going out and looking for things that will sustain your life. And it doesn’t take much imagination to see that the sexual instinct is aligned with Lust (though the sexual instinct plays out in numerous ways besides sex in the personality types).

How does this impact our lives? Vallander refers to the emotional networks related to the Centers of Intelligence as “three ways of saying No.” These are mechanisms that are reacting to the world and are saying “No” to it in those three different emotional ways. But then when we get to the instincts, he calls them “three ways of saying Yes to the world.” So, I’m going to go out into the world and interact with it in these various ways. I’m going to Seek what I need. I’m going to respond with Lust. I’m going to respond with Care and Play if my social instinct is dominant. I love this way of looking at how our brains are actually working and creating patterns to interact with the world.

The author then talks about the actual neural pathways involved in the personality. What’s great about this book is that it’s very accessible. You don’t have to be an MD or know much about psychology previously to understand and enjoy this book. You don’t have to know any of the little organs in the brain and how they all interact. Vallander explains it very well. The book is easy to read, and I found it fascinating. I think there are many cool, original ideas in the book – at least, that I’ve never heard before (and I have read a LOT of Enneagram books). There are color diagrams that make his ideas quite accessible, too.

I think The Neurobiology of the Enneagram is a great contribution to the Enneagram field because it helps us understand and, I think, validate the personality model by showing how it actually is contained within the neural pathways of our brains.

I did a video review of this book, too, that you can see here. I hope you’ll check the book out!

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