Sunday, 5 December 2010

Soul in the Flesh; or, Where's the rest of my nervous system?

You will likely know what I mean when I refer to 'gut feelings'. These are a species of what NLP-ers call congruence/incongruence signals. Kinaesthetic - or more precisely, enteroceptive - sensations that tell us, very quickly, if some situation is good or bad for us at that moment.

We all know them - the first impression that runs counter to conscious logic but turns out to be correct; the voice that, once heard, prophesies trouble, which only emerges years later.
I taught congruence techniques to various groups for years, and nearly everyone's congruence signals consist of feelings located between the heart and the lower abdomen; the phrase 'gut feeling' is indeed a fitting one.

What part of us is doing the feeling here? I always naively assumed that the brain was processing masses of fuzzy information about the situation below my conscious awareness, and then presenting me with a signal that, for some reason, was either a swelling or rising feeling around my diaphragm (good) or a sinking, shrinking or clenching feeling in my lower abdomen (bad). Maybe this unconscious processor, once it had completed its job, used my abdominal nerves as a signaling beacon.

But why the abdomen? Maybe these sensations are the way we perceive processing in the enteric nervous system. This is the vast neural system, sometimes considered as part of the autonomic NS, which controls the intestines and other abdominal organs, as well as chest cavity organs.

Do we experience this neural place in some way, like we experience the brain as the seat of conscious thought? Otherwise, the use of the guts to express the result of some pretty deep processing seems arbitrary, like grabbing the first thing to hand. Much less arbitrary would be the picture of the enteric NS actually doing the processing, and communicating its decision, yes, no or maybe, as a feeling in that part of the body.

A TV programme a while back on transplant memories invited us to take this idea a step further. When a heart is transplanted, it needs to get started in its new chest cavity. The transplanted heart contains a large number of nerves - the researcher on the show referred to a 'little brain' existing within the heart.
These nerves respond to emotions from elsewhere in the body - apparently, an electrocardiogram will register a strong emotion before brain electrodes detect it, indicating that it is to this 'unconscious' part of our NS that emotion arrives first. This is of a piece with the speed of processing of congruence/incongruence signals - these are mechanisms that exist to warn us quicker than conscious processing can manage.

The researchers in the TV programme had found evidence that the information needed to 'reboot' a heart when, for whatever reason, it has just stopped, is carried in this heart-nerve complex, so that when a heart is transplanted, its 'reboot' is controlled by itself, not by the host's organs. Taking things a step further, they speculated that some 'core memories' of the donor's life may be stored in the heart-nerves, to the extent that they can surface and overcome the personality of recipient. Examples from such cases involve food preferences, musical tastes and other qualities we tend to think of as personal.

In stead of just the wiring for a sack of offal, the enteric NS is revealed as another part of ourselves that we live with and through, another source of experience. And this kind of experience is of primary, unmediated knowing; the subjectivity of the enteric NS is what our ancestors would have called another soul.


  1. The 'gut feeling' may not be entirely a neural-electric thing...
    Bear in mind that that all-important neuropeptide serotonin is primarily a gut chemical - about 80% of the body's 5-HT is in the gut. Some neuro types suggest there's two parallel systems: the primarily electrical, which mediates flight-fight, sudden acute events - and the primarily hormonal-neuropeptide-based, which mediates chronic, slow processes... such as, dare I say 'ruminating' on a problem.

    Add in little problems with the standard model of neurology as anencephlia - people with pretty much no brain matter at all who nonetheless still function pretty well instead of just being a vegetable... and it's clear that thought and consciousness are not entirely (or even necessarily) situated in the brain.

    (More on anencephla here: )

  2. To continue; the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is of a much older order than the grey matter of the cortex. Cat is correct concerning the cortex not even really being needed to make these types of gut decisions. Often our bodies via the SNS have already made a decision concerning a situation based on far more primal information than our relatively new and immature cortices can accurately interpret, and with much greater speed. That sinking icky feeling is blood being pulled from your central organs (like the stomach) and being moved to your extremities (like your legs) preparing the body to run.
    To agree! I think that often the brain gets in the way of good decision making. I have read some research (couldn't cite it now but could find it if anyone wanted) indicating that the best decisions are often made unconsciously. Even complicated decisions concerning money etc seem to be made better if the gut is trusted before the brain. :)

  3. Cat: '...dare I say 'ruminating' on a problem.' Please do! I think our language contains snippets of folk-wisdom about these things. There is obviously considerable 'processing power' available in the enteric NS, and maybe some people with processing deficits in the brain can use it, which has pretty amazing implications for future medicine.

    Tzu Jan - I agree that the 'incongruence sensation' has much in common with the fight-or-flight adrenal reaction, but it's not the same thing - for a start, the incongruence signal is much shorter lived. It must use much of the same 'wiring', but arises from a much more consciously-built process, and incongruence signals can become incredibly sophisticated, so that much more than just 'yes' or 'no' can be discerned.

    Yes, evidence has been accumulating for a while about how we make decisions before we're consciously aware we've done so.