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.



  1. I just made a decision with the help of my gut! Went over and over and over it again in my mind, for no less than four days, looked at all the possible solutions and like you say my gut still told me my mind was wrong. Now it may yet all prove that my gut was wrong, but I feel happy that I'm not sick to my stomach with worry over it anymore so, that's good enough for me! :)
    What a great topic. Thanks :)

  2. Thanks, Carrie! I'm glad you liked it :)