Many Eastern approaches to medicine and healing would see the stomach (the gut) as the seat of our emotions. A surprising discovery in recent years that tends to reinforce this belief – and which has raised some fascinating questions – is to do with the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve runs from the brain down to the gut. It’s a major highway, and a very busy one indeed. It carries heavy traffic.
Up until recently it was assumed that most of this traffic was one-way, from the brain to the gut, the brain conveying instructions to the gut on all matters to do with digestion.
Now Professor Michael Gershon’s pioneering work at New York’s Columbia University suggests the opposite: that far more traffic flows from the gut to the brain than vice versa.
The big question is what are all these messages from the gut conveying to the brain? Well, there are lots of don’t knows to questions about the hugely complex human digestive system. What we do know is that 90-95% of our serotonin, which dictates our mood, lies in the gut and only a small amount in the brain. So all that huge traffic of messages to the brain may be largely to do with conveying, literally, gut feelings. In other words, it may be the gut, not the brain, is telling us how we feel. Eastern medicine may have got it right all along, that emotions really do originate in the gut.
Unlike the brain, which conveniently thinks in words, the gut is more to do with us ‘sensing our sensations’ and having faith our gut feelings may be conveying an important message for us. In my 32 years of practice as a psychotherapist I know that accessing our gut feelings can be liberating. It frees us of unresolved issues ‘stuck’ in the gut where they reside very uncomfortably.
In the area of our emotions it seems our gut is the senior partner. A knot in the stomach, butterflies in the stomach, your gut reaction to something? Listening to your gut more than your brain may be a true education.