The Brain in the Belly

Looking at the belly you wouldn’t think it concealed a brain. Unlike the head with the face emanating alertness and the antennae of our special senses beaming from our eyes, ears, nose and mouth the belly with it’s smooth skin does not give the impression of housing intelligence. But it does, a very different kind of intelligence from our head brain. The belly is the seat of our emotional intelligence. Lining the entire digestive tract is the Enteric Nervous System, now commonly referred to as our Second Brain.

So how does it work? ENS is a processor, just like our head brain, and it exerts sensory-motor control of digestion. But there is more to it than that. The gut brain is highly responsive to external signals of safety and danger. These signals trigger internal changes in the gut, which are relayed to the head brain primarily by the Vagus nerve.

In his groundbreaking book ‘Descarte’s Error’ neuroscientist Antonio Damasio states: ‘bodily changes define an emotion’. The ENS is responsible for those bodily changes in the gut, which we know as ‘gut feelings’, our ‘6th sense’, our instinctive responses to cues from the environment. In Damasio’s schema feelings are the conscious awareness of these bodily changes; they are the result of messages from the gut to the brain, which the brain interprets as ‘fear’ or ‘anger’ or ‘happiness’.

Stephen Porges in his Polyvagal Theory brought new insight into the workings of the Autonomic Nervous System. Instead of the two opposing functions of the Sympathetic (fight or flight) and the Parasympathetic (rest and digest) of the ANS, he clearly demonstrated a third function which supports social behaviours – communication, co-operation, compassion – all very important to human civilization. This third function, called Social Engagement is facilitated by a specialized branch of the Vagus Nerve.

Porges coined the term Neuroception to describe the sensory capacity of the Social Engagement System. He defined Neuriception as detection of safety or threat, without awareness; sensory input which does not reach the level of consciousness. The gut brain plays a huge part in Neuroception. Bessel van der Kolk wrote, ‘People with impaired social engagement systems are prone to misinterpret safety as a threat and objective danger a safety. Their visceral feedback system fails to protect them, or prevents them from engaging in the fullness of what life has to offer.’


© Katherine Ukleja 2014