The brain in your gut: how neuroscience research is taking the mysticism out of gut instinct

Your gut brain is smarter than your head brain thinks

Buried in our intestines, deep inside its tissue, is a thin layer of neurons, the same cells that you find in your cerebral cortex. There are over 500 million neurons in the gut, which is about the same amount as you would find in a cat’s brain. These are spread out along the gut, which extends from your neck down to your rectum. This brain doesn’t “speak” in the method you are used to, but along with managing digestion, it does process certain types of memory, and communicates with the brain to manage the secretion of key chemicals such as serotonin (which mediates your mood), and communicates with the head brain through a connection called the vagus nerve. Your gut brain, or enteric nervous system (ENS) as scientists call it, even has the same sleep cycle as the head brain; when your head brain is in “Rapid Eye Movement” mode, your gut enters “Rapid Gut Movement”, and scientists believe that this process affects your dreams and memory consolidation. Scientists now are confident that gut instinct is a genuine part of the human brain.

Buried in our intestines, deep inside its tissue, is a thin layer of neurons, the same cells that you find in your cerebral cortex. There are over 200 million neurons in the gut, which is about the same amount as you would find in a cat's brain, and is fundamental to your gut instinct.
Buried in our intestines, deep inside its tissue, is a thin layer of neurons, the same cells that you find in your cerebral cortex. There are over 500 million neurons in the gut, which is about the same amount as you would find in a cat’s brain, and is fundamental to your gut instinct.

Modern life requires too many decisions to ignore gut instinct

Some of the most powerful names in business, from Richard Branson to Oprah Winfrey to Warren Buffet, credit their success with following their gut. Understanding the powers of intuition are even more important in today’s fast-paced business climate. The amount of information we process daily is unmatched in history. A recent UCLA study calculated that we process more than 174 newspapers worth of information daily – or five times more data than we received 20 years ago. More and more, we’re being asked to make decisions faster, with less time, and more stress.

 

The Abdominal and Pelvic Brain (1907)- by Byron Robinson; over 700 pages long containing over 200 detailed illustrations of the abdominal brain that is at the centre of our "gut instinct". Despite being published over 100 years ago, the gut brain has only recently become common knowledge.
The Abdominal and Pelvic Brain (1907)- by Byron Robinson; over 700 pages long containing over 200 detailed illustrations of the abdominal brain that is at the centre of our “gut instinct”. Despite being published over 100 years ago, the gut brain has only recently become common knowledge.

 

Making better decisions and listening to your gut

A common denominator in the profiles of successful business leaders is their ability to trust their gut instinct, particularly when presented with data. In these times of statistical overload, the difference between success and failure often comes down to how leaders “feel” about the data, and whether it confirms their gut instinct.

Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Corp until his death in 2011, was a vocal advocate of the power of listening to your gut instinct. Jobs’s interest in Eastern spirituality, Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, practiced regular meditation and mindfulness and cites these as contributors to his pioneering intuition and thought leadership
Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Corp until his death in 2011, was a vocal advocate of the power of listening to your gut instinct. Jobs’s interest in Eastern spirituality, Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, practiced regular meditation and mindfulness and cites these as contributors to his pioneering intuition and thought leadership

The gut brain communicates through a number of modalities, including: Hunger signals and meal initiation, Satiety signals, Taste signals, Muscle tension, Visceral sensation. You can note these signals in language, in phrases such as “that guy left a sour taste in my mouth”, or “We’re just not hungry enough”. Noting these indicators in language can not only help you to understand where your decisions are coming from, but also those thinking patterns in others around you.

Listening to your gut instinct requires a quiet mind

In Japanese culture, businessmen learn the practice of “haragei”; the art of listening to gut instinct. They are taught to use the silences in conversation (which are generally longer and more comfortable than Western meetings could handle), to listen to their gut and be guided by their instincts. Michihiro Matsumoto, author of “The Unspoken Way” suggests that to practice haragei, you must breathe correctly. Calm, synchronous breathing (in breaths of the same length as out breaths) relaxes the nervous system and gives your head brain the space and silence to “hear” the signals coming to you from the gut.

In traditional Chinese medicine, developed over thousands of years, practitioners recognise the link between emotions and organ systems, and developed techniques to improve the gut-head connection, still practiced by Taoists, Qigong and Tai Chi practitioners today. In the Taoist tradition, each person assumes responsibility for the emotions that arise within, regardless of the external events that trigger the emotions. Taoist exercises take us into our bodies and transform emotions by transforming the associated physiological systems. Exercises such as The Inner Smile and Six Healing Sounds exercises help balance and integrate our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, promoting health, resilience, and vitality.

References

Hadhazy, A., Think Twice: How the Gut’s ‘Second Brain’ Influences Mood and Well-Being,  2010, Scientific American. Link here.

Soosalu, G., Oka, M., mBraining – Using your multiple brains to do cool stuff,  TimeBinding Publications. Link here.

Robinson, B., The Abdominal and Pelvic Brain,  1907 (Republished 2010), Nabu Press. Link here.

Gershon, M., The Second Brain, 1999. Harper Collins. Link here.

Matsumoto, M., The Unspoken Way,  Kodansha America, Inc., Link here.

Master Mantak Chia, Inner Smile and Six Healing Sounds Practices,  Universal Healing Tao Center. Link here.

Isaacson, W., Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography, Hachette Littlehampton, 2011. Link here.

Hilbert, M., The World’s Technological Capacity to Store, Communicate, and Compute Information: Analogies & Orders of magnitude in perspective,  martinhilbert.net. Link here.

Matt

Experienced business leader, mentor and coach, with fascinations for technology, psychology and ancient philosophies. A self-confessed techno hippy with a unique talent for bringing the best out in people.

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