We often think that our brain is our decision making centre …like our body is just there to support our head.
Of late there’s been lots of talk about ‘emotional’ (gut or System 1) and ‘rational’ (system 2) decisions as something that happens in this head, a result of our ‘mammalian/ reptilian’ brain and our new brain….but here’s the cool new scientific twist – you’re gut (that thing in the middle of your body) plays a pivotal role in how we make decisions.
Think about this for instance:
Your brain needs energy to work…and though ‘we may not give it much thought – but the process of extracting energy from food is an intricate one. It involves hundreds of millions of neurons that aren’t in your brain. Those neurons are found in the outer layers of your gut, and the enteric nervous system (ENS or second brain) their form is so powerful that it can work without any direct input from the brain’.
Most recently scientists have found that this enteric nervous system (ENS) connects your gut to your brain – and they are labelling it your little brain.
But, the ENS doesn’t work the way your ‘big brain’ does. It can’t complete highly evolved and complex tasks like writing a novel or working out a math solution; it’s main role is ‘controlling digestion, from swallowing to the release of enzymes that break down food to the control of blood flow that helps with nutrient absorption to elimination…it’s doesn’t seem capable of thought but it communicates back and forth with out big brain with profound results’ says Jay Pasticha from John Hopkins.
Maybe most surprisingly, this implies that your gut’s health can affect the decisions you make. Jay Pastiche and his team have found evidence that irritation in the gastrointestinal system sends signals to the central nervous system that can trigger changes in our mood. For example, people with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) are more likely to develop depression and anxiety (not the other way around).
An area, that these researchers are now looking into is how the digestive system affects cognition (thinking skills and memory). A study from early this year experimented with rats and tape worms to test this theory (sounds fun!). They found that rats infected with a tape worms stopped memory loss (this was due to a triggering of the immune system versus the control rats).
It’s fascinating research and still so much to learn..nice to know we’re more than walking brains.