Saturday, February 26, 2011

Gut Feelings

Our second brains are in this picture!

This week, I had to make a significant decision.

While I rationalized and reasoned, remembered and recalled, I was able to come up with a logical decision in my mind. What solidified, or confirmed, my decision, however, was the reaction I experienced in my gut: “no, No, NO.” I felt physically ill and incredibly stressed out at the thought of saying “yes.” Once I said “no,” my stomach felt light and fluffy and relieved.

This got me thinking about the whole idea of “gut feelings.”

I found out that our intestines are actually home to our enteric nervous system, which controls our gastrointestinal system. The enteric nervous system contains one hundred million (i.e. a LOT of) neurons—not nearly as many as the brain does, but still enough to be considered our “second brain.”1 The fact that the ENS is considered our second brain makes sense, doesn't it? When you are nervous or stressed, you feel physically “sick to your stomach.” When you have to do something you have been dreading, your stomach churns. When your phone rings and you see on the call display that it’s that guy or girl you have a crush on, you feel a sudden onslaught of “butterflies in your stomach.” When you know you have made the right decision, you feel a warm, placid calm in your stomach.

We make decisions using our wonderfully complex brains (our “first” brains—in our heads) through logic, reason, accessing memories, recalling our morals and what we know to be true and right or false and wrong,

but we also make decisions using our gut—our enteric nervous system.

Courtesy Google Image Search
As I did this week, people often are encouraged to “go with [their] gut” when facing difficult decisions. Have you ever struggled with a dilemma, and you thought and thought and thought about it until you couldn’t think about it anymore? What if you didn’t feel like you could make the right decision by using your own wisdom, logic, thoughts or experiences? What if you rationalized until your brain got a serious cramp, only to feel that your logical decision, perhaps involving weighing innumerable pros and cons, still left you feeling uneasy? Have you ever resorted to going with your gut feeling?

Maybe you ended up retracing your steps to the first feeling you felt, before you thought about the issue, and ultimately made your decision based on that initial reaction.

In my life, I have made decisions based on what I knew I knew, in my heart of hearts—what I knew to be right in my gut—despite what my brain was logically able to work out.

It sure feels better to go with your gut when you aren’t sure you can make the right decision based on what you know. After all, doesn’t it feel like betrayal to side with your mind/brain when your gut is opposed?
Your gut feeling is usually right, too, isn’t it? Also, doesn’t your gut feeling provide a simpler, clearer answer than the thousands of thoughts your mind produces?

Apparently, 95% of the body’s serotonin neurotransmitters are found in the gut. The enteric nervous system uses over 30 neurotransmitters, just as the brain does. Obviously, our brains are connected to and work together with our ENS, but sometimes what seems right, feels wrong. Sometimes what seems wrong, feels right.

My questions on this topic are: What makes the enteric nervous system, which runs through our intestines, such a reliable place for experiencing accurate feelings and sensations—so much so that it’s known as the second brain? Why does your gut feeling sometimes go against the rational sense your mind works out?

I wonder if this is because while our minds are so full of thoughts and ideas, (which our logical decision-making process has to contend with and sift through and arrange to create a rational choice,) our guts are just sensory. We just feel good, or we feel bad. Looking to our gut feeling for an answer is much simpler, so it’s easier for us to know our answer.

Our intestines are full of crap, yes, but they are cleaner than our brains in terms of memories, thoughts, logic, reason, wisdom, knowledge and experiences that could cloud an otherwise clear choice.


1. One scientist who uses this term is Michael Gershon, known to be the father of modern neurogastroenterology, who wrote a book in 1998 called The Second Brain: A Groundbreaking New Understanding of Nervous Disorders of the Stomach and Intestine.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Tribute to the Wind

[ Before I get into my tribute to the wind, I just want to say this: The Grammy Award Ceremony was almost a week ago, but I am still elated that my two favourite bands of all time, Muse and Arcade Fire, won Grammys last Sunday (Muse’s The Resistance for Best Rock Album and Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” for Album of the Year). I am so happy for them! Last Sunday’s Grammys was the first ever that I watched from beginning to end. It was so exciting to watch both Muse and Arcade Fire perform! Ahhhh… I was in heaven. For the past seven or so years, these two bands have become important parts of the soundtrack to my life, and I am so thankful to them for creating such amazing, energetic, passionate music for the world to experience. My life has been richer because of their music. Woo hoo! ]

Anyway, back to my regularly scheduled blogging:

Here's a riddle - I got this one from The Hobbit:

Voiceless it cries,
Wingless flutters,
Toothless bites,
Mouthless mutters.

Whatever could this be?

This past week has been quite windy—at least in Niagara. Just over a week ago, the temperature dropped to -11 degrees (Celsius). Yesterday, the temperature was +11 degrees. On freezing cold days, the wind seems to slap you in the face—an extra sting as though the biting cold wasn’t bad enough. However, on mild days, like the past couple days, the wind is welcoming. Instead of trying to hide my face from the wind (it still found me), on Thursday and Friday I found myself turning my head into the wind, like a dog sticking its head out of the car window on a “road trip.”

I wrote a little descriptive piece as my tribute to the wind. The wind is so interesting to me, for the reasons succinctly described in the riddle above. Here it is (OK, yes, I may have romanticized the concept of “wind” just a little):

A little boy and a little girl played outside on a windy afternoon. The sun was shining bright and white on the world that day. The little girl’s brown hair lashed violently around her sweet face. Her cheeks flushed with excitement as she kicked a bright yellow ball to the little boy in anticipation of the being kicked right back to her. Their game was extra challenging on that afternoon, thanks to the wind.

The boy kicked the ball back to her and then was distracted by a pink flower quickly losing its petals to the sharp gusts of wind. He picked the flower and ran over to the girl. His dirty hands handed the flower to her; her somewhat cleaner hands took the flower as the last two petals flew away. The girl kind of wondered why he had given her a flower without petals. To her, a flower without its colourful petals equalled a flower without beauty. She tilted her head to one side and looked at him questioningly.

“I don’t like the colour pink,” the boy explained. The flower, as is, was beautiful to him. He smiled his winning smile. (His impish dimples compensated for a few missing teeth.)

“Girls like pink,” the girl countered. As she shrugged her small shoulder, the hand that was holding the flower relaxed enough that the flower (well, just the stem, really) blew away.

“Oh,” both the girl and boy said as the wind stepped in and snatched up the stem.

And so, the wind, everywhere and nowhere, here and then instantly there, loud but soundless, angry but emotionless, moving this and that around with neither a mind nor a body, invisible but for its path of destruction, interrupted the girl’s and boy’s childlike discussion of the definition of beauty.

The flower’s remains—both the pink petals and the stem—wove in and out and through the wind’s nonexistent yet long and slender fingers. The wind had succeeded in collecting all the broken pieces. To an observant thinker, the wind might have seemed to be trying (unsuccessfully) to fit all the pieces back together, mindless and numb as it was.

The children soon forgot about the pink flower and resumed their game with the yellow ball.
The wind, on the other hand, fought without focus to create something beautiful from various fragments of nature, shreds of garbage, plastic bags from the next neighbourhood over and fervent promises escaping mouths only to be thrown into the wind’s undertow.

Ah, what a sweet melody; all the sounds spoken became windy whispers as they were carried along to blend with other sounds. Listen to the conversation of the blowing breeze—let it ease you.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

On the Origin of Valentine's Day

Valentine’s Day—a day both anticipated by lovers and dreaded by singles—is fast approaching, so this week, I spent some time researching the history behind Valentine’s Day. I wondered, Where did it all begin? In a foggy, distant memory, I recalled learning about a saint after whom this now massively commercialized day was named after. That was all I could remember, so I looked further.

What did I find out about St. Valentine? Well, most sites agree that there is no specific, definitive answer to who St. Valentine really was. There are both historical people and events, many embellished into folklore, which could have contributed to the recognition of Valentine’s Day across the world. Apparently, different people have different opinions about how Valentine’s Day became such a popular day to express love to one another. Here are some of the many and diverse stories I came across:

Some Say…

There was a Roman priest named Valentine, who, in approximately 296 A.D., under the reign of Claudius II, was martyred on February 14 for refusing to deny Christ. He was beaten and then beheaded.

Some other sources say that Valentine was actually martyred because he either secretly married or secretly helped Christians, which at that time was considered a crime. Other sources say that while Claudius II was in power, he strove to build up and maintain a strong army. He banned new marriages—as a way to help him build his army—because he found that many married men were unwilling to join his army as they were too attached to their wives and families. Valentine married young men and women in secret, which was in direct violation of the emperor’s marriage ban. He was caught, martyred (on February 14) and made a saint because of his great work.

Yet other sources focus on a tale about Valentine being imprisoned. Some say he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter, which inextricably linked “Valentine” and “love” with February 14. Others say he healed the girl, who was both blind and deaf, making him a saint, thus commemorating February 14th as Valentine’s Day.   

There are also records of a bishop in Terni named Valentine, who was martyred in 197 A.D., also on February 14. Why? Who knows?

St. Valentine of Terni

Early martyrologies contain records of a third martyr named Valentine, buried on February 14 in Africa.

(Apparently Valentine was a common name back then.)

Either way, the somewhat elusive “Valentine” was declared a saint in 500 A.D. by Pope Gelasius and therefore Valentine’s death was remembered on the 14th of February each year, making it an official saint’s day in the Roman Catholic calendar.

Some sites trace Valentine’s Day back to the old festival of Lupercalia, which had taken place in Rome on February 15 each year, for about 800 years. Young men would draw names of young women, in a lottery-style event. Each man would have his selected woman as a sexual companion for a year. Pope Gelasius was disgusted by this ritual, so in 498 A.D. he changed the patron of the feast from the god Lupercus to the martyr Valentine, and changed the lottery so that men and women would draw saints’ names instead. Each young person then had to emulate his/her selected saint for the year. However, apparently young men and women would still write notes to each other and use this festival to hook up.

Jumping ahead to the 14th and 15th century, we find the “earliest” recorded reference to Valentine’s Day and arguably the first Valentine note:

1.       Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules (1382) includes this line, which is thought to be an early association with Valentine’s Day:

For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.

(For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, When every bird cometh there to choose his mate.) Apparently, during the Middle Ages, the French and English believed that birds started looking for their mate around February 14th each year. How conveniently fitting.

2.       The earliest recorded Valentine note, according to some sources, was a love letter written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife, while he was in prison:

“Wilt thou be mine? Dear love, reply
Sweetly consent, or else deny;
Whisper softly, none shall know,
Wilt thou be mine, love? Aye or no?"

Isn't that sweet?

The Evolution of Valentine’s Day

As history progressed, Valentine’s Day has become more recognized and more commercialized. When I was talking to Joel about the history behind Valentine’s Day, he just said that Hallmark created it.

By 1969, the Roman Catholics decided to remove St. Valentine’s Day from the official Roman Catholic calendar of commemorative events. Some say Valentine’s Day was removed because the day was less and less recognized as a saint’s day and more and more celebrated as a “love” day involving the giving of chocolate, flowers, cards and heart-shaped balloons. Others say Valentine’s story lacked sufficient historical evidence to justify its position in the calendar.

Of all the legend and lore that surrounds Valentine’s Day (and I didn’t even get into mythology or Cupid’s tale), not one story has enough historical proof to have legitimately warranted the huge, widespread recognition of February 14 as Valentine’s Day in the way it is celebrated today (and has been celebrated for hundreds of years). The conflicting stories and folklore that somehow evolved into today’s Valentine’s Day is convoluted at best.

After reading all of these stories, I’ve concluded that people, throughout the ages, are just people who love to love. We write songs about love. We listen to songs about love. We watch movies about love. We read books about love. We talk about love with our friends, families, spouses and significant others. The biggest pieces of gossip at school are date stories, breakup stories, who likes whom and who kissed whom. Love is a big deal. “It’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all,” right? Maybe we just needed an excuse to celebrate crushes, infatuation, love, romance, dating, mating and having a significant other on whom to dote. Valentine’s Day is a convenient vehicle by which to celebrate love, collectively with millions of other people around the world. (It’s also a great way for Hallmark to make a killing.)

People didn’t need a specific, significant love event reinforced with adequate proof for a reason to celebrate Valentine’s Day. These little threads of stories are enough. 


Saturday, February 5, 2011

Food for Thought

About ten years ago, I worked as a cashier at a grocery store for a couple of years. A week ago I was reminded of a few stories from my grocery store days. From there, I spent some time reflecting about that job, and an influx of memories poured into my thoughts.

You can find an unlimited variety of people in a supermarket because “everybody’s gotta eat.”  (Maybe that’s why people say that a grocery store is a great place to meet someone if you’re single.) When I was a cashier, I interacted with many types of people: people of various racial, cultural, social, financial, personal and psychological types and backgrounds. After a while, I was able to discern the type of person coming through my till and converse with them accordingly.

Many people I encountered at the grocery store left me with something to think about—some customers had such an impact on me that I still remember them quite easily. I thought I’d share some of my most memorable “grocery stories” with you, along with how I felt or what I learned from each one.

 I was kind of repulsed once when a woman with a toddler girl came through my line. The little girl was ravenously devouring a brown bag full of mushrooms. Yes, unwashed mushrooms. Yes, mushrooms grown in manure. The woman just looked at me sheepishly and said, “My little girl LOVES mushrooms,” and smiled, as though she was proud that her daughter was eating something so healthy. Seriously? This woman might as well have changed her daughter’s diaper and then let her play with the dirty diaper afterward. That might have been cleaner.

Death Scanner
All of the cashiers tried to avoid a certain lady who had a strange perception of the scanners. She was completely convinced that they emitted either some sort of dangerous radiation or a high-powered laser with mortal ramifications—I don’t quite remember. She would not let us scan any of her food. We had to enter each UPC code of each package manually and then hand each package back to her. She would cringe if we let the food come close to the scanner.  She would then hurry her groceries over to some boxes, where they would be safe at last. This process seemed to take forever. I wondered how difficult and/or complicated the rest of her life must be if she was this paranoid about grocery store scanners.

The Crowning Moment
One holiday season, I made the unfortunate decision to wear a crown of mistletoe during my last shift before Christmas. I was 18 years old—what do you expect? I must have thought it would be funny and perhaps a little flirty to wear mistletoe…I might have been a bit of an attention seeker back then…I don’t know! However, my plans backfired when a crotchety old Scrooge of a man came through my line and shouted, “Now all we have to do is nail you to a cross!” He then grunted and walked away. Apparently the mistletoe looked more like a crown of thorns. No, I did not save the crown for Easter. I threw it away.

Mackerel Man
One of the funniest moments I ever experienced, anywhere, was at the supermarket. A woman came through my line with a box full of canned mackerel. I am assuming it was on sale. She was really quiet, but the friendly gentleman who was in line after her walked past her to get a box for his food, started packing up his own groceries, looked over at her excessive amount of canned mackerel and exclaimed, “Holy Mackerel!” It was beautiful; it was hilarious; it was perfect—it made sense both literally and figuratively. I laughed so hard I had to collect my wits before I was able to give him his change.

As a sidenote, I wondered where the expression, “Holy Mackerel” came from, and this is the possible origin according to Wiktionary:
“Recorded from 1803 with uncertain origin, but possibly a euphemism for Holy Mary, with Mackerel being a nickname for Catholics because they ate the fish on Fridays. Another suggested explanation is the practice of selling mackerel on Sundays in the seventeenth century (because its quality deteriorates rapidly), so it was known as a holy fish.” (Source:

This next story had apparently impacted me so much I wrote it in my journal that day. It was March 2, 2000. A dark-haired woman came through my line, and she looked really happy. I was quietly scanning her groceries, and then out of the blue, she told me, “Life is a song. Just sing it. Then it makes all your worries go away.” What she said was inspirational, but what I admired more than what she said was the fact that she told it to a cashier at a supermarket. I like it when people say nice, inspirational things like that. She could have easily paid for her food in silence, but she chose not to.

The Less Fortunate
My heart broke a little every time a certain small, friendly man came through my line. He would always buy a small amount of produce: two pears, a small tangle of bean sprouts, a teeny acorn squash and a few potatoes. He would search around in his fanny pack for change to pay for his food, and sometimes he had to put something back because he didn’t have enough money.  I felt terrible that I took for granted the excessive amounts of food available to me while this nice man could barely afford a few vegetables. I wonder where he is today.

Trust or Desperation?
On a regular basis, a bus would come, full of refugees, so they could do their grocery shopping. The store would quickly become extremely busy and extremely noisy with the extra shoppers. They would spend about an hour in the store. Most of these people did not speak English, and most of these people bought unusual food—such as the vegetables we never remembered the 4-digit code for. These times were always challenging for the employees, but I didn’t appreciate how challenging this shopping experience was for the refugees until one certain day. A family came through my line, and their groceries cost over $100. When I told them the total, they looked blankly at me and blankly at the screen. The father reached into his pocket and brought out his wallet. He opened it, showed me the bills and pointed for me to take what he owed. There were a lot of bills in his wallet. I immediately felt very self-conscious: he wanted me to take his money? I felt…guilty. How did he know whether or not I was taking the right amount? Of course, I took the right amount, counted it slowly for him and then slowly counted his change back to him (more to make me and any onlookers feel better), but I still don’t think he knew what I was doing. So I wondered, was this an act of trust or of desperation?

It’s been about ten years since I was a cashier at a grocery store. My cashier job was one of my first jobs, but even so, I think I learned more about people there than I have working anywhere else. Seriously.