more than just a gut feeling

do you trust your gut instinct? is there any type of information that you find hard to digest? or better yet, is there a person in your life who you can’t stomach? what about the last time you’ve felt butterflies in there?  

we have so many verbal cues around our stomach’s intuition and “communication skills”, that it was only a matter of time before we, as curious human beings, would begin investigating the deeper meanings (literally) hidden in our gut. language has always acted as a semiotics-rich mirror for our insights and experiences. so, in the case of all our stomach-related expressions, the gut has been trying to tell us something for a while now (similarly to our hearts). today, we will be spending a bit of time acknowledging the neuroscientific brilliance and complexity of our gastrointestinal tract. especially if you are interested in neuromarketing, you will want to pay more attention to the gut after reading this. 

our bodies are infinite maps of meaning, built out of many different systems, organs, networks, cells, bacteria, hormones, structures, liquids, and tissues. some of these components carry more weight in human behavioral processes through the nature of their structures and activities. thanks to the continuous research done by a few international teams, we can add the gut to this special list of body parts that have a say in what makes us human (more than just through its quintessential qualities of eating, digesting, and pooping).  

so, what is the gut and what role does it play in the way we function? 

Cambridge Dictionary refers to the gut as “the long tube in the body of a person or animal, through which food moves during the process of digesting food.” it includes the mouth, esophagus, stomach, liver, pancreas, gallbladder, small intestine, colon, and rectum. most of these organs are placed in our bellies, and out of all these organs, the stomach seems to be the one that triggers the most consciously-aware emotions in us humans.    

until the 1990s, the gut didn’t really come to mind as a super-influencer of the brain – at least, not to the extent of today. we didn’t think of our stomachs as having such a huge impact on our mood or behavior. actually, according to gastroenterology researcher and microbiologist, Giulia Enders, people tended to look at the gastrointestinal system as relatively unimportant, except for a few vital functions like digestion and defecation. she wrote the following in her book, Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ: “the masterpieces of the other two tubes – the heart and the brain – are generally held in high regard. we see the heart as central to life since it pumps blood around the body. the brain is admired for its ability to create a dazzling array of new mental images and concepts every second. but the gut, in most people’s eyes, is good for little more than going to the toilet. apart from that, people think it just hangs around inside our bellies, letting off a little ‘steam’ every now and then. people do not generally credit it with any particular abilities. It would be fair to say that we underestimate our gut.” 

and boy, are Giulia Enders and other neurogastroenterologists right. to understand why the gut is often called our second brain”, we need to close in to what is known as the “enteric nervous system”. this is a vast network of neurons (around 100 million of them) lined across the whole gastrointestinal tract and in direct contact with the brain. initially, researchers assumed that these gut neurons communicated indirectly with the brain by releasing special hormones in the bloodstream when it came to hunger and feeling nervous. but it was later revealed that the gut has multiple and more direct ways of saying what it needs from the brain and vice-versa (through vagal neurons, for example). in fact, the gut and the brain are so intimately connected, that a person’s stomach or intestinal problems can be the cause or the result of strong emotions such as stress or anxiety.  

this strong link between the two systems explains the when-nervous-then-nauseous reaction that people often experience. think about someone giving a speech in front of a large audience or being scared of a test in school. those situations confirm the constant communication flow between the gut and the brain as Ms. Enders explains: “stress is thought to be among the most important stimuli discussed by the brain and the gut. when the brain senses a major problem (such as time pressure or anger), it naturally wants to solve it. to do so, it needs energy, which it borrows mainly from the gut. the gut is informed of the emergency situation via the sympathetic nerve fibers, and is instructed to obey the brain in this exceptional period. it is kind enough to save energy on digestion, producing less mucus and reducing the blood supply.” this process is also the reason why some of us end up throwing up in times of crisis or pressure. this is just the way the stomach gets rid of an extra-baggage in terms of digestion. that way, the brain gains more capacity to handle the perceived stressful situation.  

when we explore the unique gut-brain relation even deeper, we notice that from all the other organs, the gut seems to be one of the brain’s closest buddies. an extra argument for this statement, aside from the ones above, is the range of brain regions that connect with our bellies. while the stomach doesn’t seem to be directly linked to places like the visual cortex (otherwise, we would get images of what is going on down there 24/7), it does couple with other parts of the brain. so far, researchers have mapped the insula, the amygdala, the hippocampus, the prefrontal cortex, the limbic system, and the anterior cingulate cortex as being connected through neural pathways with the gut. these brain regions carry the responsibilities of emotion building and processing, self-awareness, fear, motivation and memory. as Giulia Enders wrote: “this does not mean that our guts control our moral thinking, but it allows for the possibility that the gut might have a certain influence on it. scientists need to conduct more laboratory experiments to look more closely at that possibility.”   

today’s scientific community is still far from unlocking all the behavior-related secrets rooted in the brain-gut connection. nevertheless, progress is being made as we speak and this fact should spark genuine excitement in our branding and marketing community. experiments on mood development and stress increase/decrease that can be traced back to the gastrointestinal tract broaden our understanding of the enteric nervous system and its overall impact. it makes us question how big the gut’s influence is on our way of feeling and behaving. we can even go further and ask what aspects of our mood or even parts of our personality are affected or influenced by the gut.  

in all of these questions, one thing is certain: there is more to the stomach than meets the eye. we just have to see what we uncover next about this important part of us, and add another piece to the puzzle that we represent as human beings.  

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