We all have that little voice in the back of our mind that says don’t go to that party tonight, don’t walk down that side street, think before investing that money and don’t trust person. We often talk about a “gut feeling” when we meet someone for the first time. We’re told to “trust our gut instinct” when making a difficult decision or that it’s “gut check time” when dealing with a situation that tests our nerve and determination. That little voice isn’t just a passing subconscious thought to ignore. That little voice is the one you should learn to pay really close attention to. A primal connection exists between our brain and our gut. This mind-gut connection is not just metaphorical.
Our brain and gut are connected by an extensive network of nerves, neurons and a highway of chemicals and hormones that constantly provide feedback about how hungry we are, whether or not we’re experiencing stress, or if we’ve ingested a disease-causing microbe. This information superhighway is called the brain-gut axis and it provides constant updates on the state of affairs at your two ends. That sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach after looking at your bank account after the holidays is a clear example of the brain-gut connection at work. You’re stressed and your gut knows it—immediately.
Here are some fun facts about the the gut-brain connection. Scientist call the gut the enteric brain or, “brain of the stomach” – it’s considered our body’s second brain. There are hundreds of million of neurons connecting the brain to the enteric nervous system, the part of the nervous system that is tasked with controlling the gastrointestinal system. This vast web of connections monitors the entire digestive tract from the esophagus down to the anus. The sub-cortical part of our brain, which resides at the top of our spine, has nerves that connect it to the core parts of our body such as our head, back, neck, throat, shoulders, chest, sternum and stomach. It makes sense that when we’re feeling anxious about an upcoming event we feel unsure of we get an upset stomach. If we’re filled with dread about a family reunion our bodies can respond with a pressure in our chest or a tense feeling in our shoulders.
“We often talk about intuition coming from the body — following our gut instincts and trusting our hearts,” the study’s coauthor Barnaby D. Dunn, of the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, UK, said in a press release. “What happens in our bodies really does appear to influence what goes in our minds. We should be careful about following these gut instincts, however, as sometimes they help and sometimes they hinder our decision making.”
The Gut is Faster than the Mind
Paying attention to what your body tells you can be critical to safety and success. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio of the University of Southern California tells us that it is important to pay attention to “somatic markers.” Originating in the insula (the island in the brain responsible for social emotions like pride or guilt) and the amygdala (which cues our response to threats), they send messages that something just feels right—or it doesn’t. The more you pay attention to the outcome of trusting your intuition in combination with facts, the better your future decision-making can become.
Interestingly, a 2011 study published in the journal Psychological Science revealed how the body is able to speak intuitively to the mind by dealing out a card game. Researchers designed a game based on no obvious strategy but forced participants to rely upon their hunches. Each participant was hooked up to a heart monitor and a finger sensor to measure sweat secretion. Most players figured out how to improve and eventually win the game, and researchers realized the winners were those who listened to their heart rate. It would speed up before they made a certain choice, but people mistook the subtle bodily changes for intuition.
Instincts and Intuition
The key to understanding our brains is by remembering that humans are animals, which are born with a certain toolbox full of strategies to help us survive. It is biologically engraved in us to recognize when to run from a perceived danger, known as the “flight, fight, freeze” response. An example of this is when our hands reach out to catch us when we trip. It’s the proverbial sixth sense we all have behind the five other senses: see, taste, touch, smell, and hear. It is the automatic, mindless thought process that doesn’t require analysis or deep thinking.
Research suggests that women are thought to have a stronger ability to make a successful intuitive decision because of their exceptional skills in reading other humans. Female ancestors needed to evaluate a situation quickly in order to tune in to their infant and their environment for protection and survival. Their brains were trained with peak awareness because they were protecting a heart outside of their own bodies. Female brains therefore evolved to have a larger composition and ability to organize chunks of environmental information at a time, giving them an edge to read people.
So ladies, trust your gut.
Out of touch
Unfortunately, gut feelings can also be silenced. When humans are forced or denied certain feelings during their prime stages of mental, physical, and above all emotional growth, guts can be faulty. A childhood hijacked by emotionally or physically abusive or neglectful guardians can create excessive self-doubt, irrational fear, or a clouded thought process, making it difficult to filter traumatic past experiences from actual gut intuition. Overwhelming stimuli, such as growing up in a chaotic home environment, can also make it difficult for a person to see the decision in front of them with clarity. The body never lies but our head can give us mixed signals and weigh pros and cons, justifying actions we might feel hesitant about.
For those of you that have grown up in environments where your gut was silenced, know that the body and brain can learn to talk to each other and you can get better at paying attention to what they are trying to tell you.
Here are some important questions to ask yourself:
*”What do I feel in my body?” (think breathing,chest, back, shoulders, throat, neck, sternum and stomach, headache)
*“Do I feel good around this person or choice?”
*”Where do I notice that good feeling or uncomfortable feeling?
*“Does this person or situation give me energy or take my energy away?”
*“Do I feel empowered or dis-empowered in this moment?”
*“Am I going toward an adventure or running from fear?”
*“Am I listening to my lessons learned from the past?”
*“Would I make the same choice if I had a million dollars in my pocket now?”
*“Do I feel respected and valued?”
*“Am I trying to control the situation or am I leaving room for expansion?”
From here, it’s just a matter of practice to listen to your cognitive, emotional and physical responses and learning to trust and find value in them.
The next time you come to an situation in your life, whether it’s a meeting, or an interaction with someone, or a task you’re doing on your own – pay attention to what your gut and the other core parts of your body are feeling. What do you notice?
Call now for a free consultation to learn how to listen to your gut.