Let’s get literal for a moment. Did you know that the part of the nervous system that lines the gut comprises more than 100 million neurons? That’s more than the spinal cord—so many, in fact, that some scientists refer to this network as the “second brain” because of its capacity to process so much information.
Most of this data involves the day-to-day needs of digestion, but some of it appears to go deeper. In fact, scientists have found that about 90 percent of the neural pathways in one of the gut’s primary nerves lead from the gut to the brain, not the other way around. Whoa.¹
Scientists are still figuring out how all of this might work for our benefit (for example, there have been studies linking these nerves to treatments for depression, and others that connect the colonies of bacteria in our guts to autism), but the bottom line is, our gut is talking to our brain, all the time. That’s why the phrases “gut feeling” or “go with your gut” make sense. The question is: Are we listening? Am I listening?
Allow me to back up.
There’s this thing that people do—that I do—all the time that bugs me. It’s the overuse of the word “busy,” and I am so, so guilty of this. We use the word “busy” as a cop-out answer when someone asks us how we are. We measure our busyness against others’ as if busyness equates to importance or status. It’s everywhere.
Lately I’ve been wondering what would happen if I substituted the word “noisy” in place of “busy.” Imagine the conversation: “How are things with you?” “Things are noisy.”
And it’s true. Our lives are full of the actual sonic noise of music, advertisements, ringtones, traffic, videos and conversations. In fact, when I’m at work or trying to focus, I often listen to noise just to cover up other noise.
And then there’s the mental and spiritual noise, which for me often sounds like a chorus of “shoulds,” “should’ves” and “should’nt’ves.” And believe it or not, I find myself raising the volume on this type of noise to drown out other emotional noise that I don’t want to deal with. You could probably even say that we overwhelm the messages from our guts by stuffing them full of inflammatory processed junk foods.
I don’t believe any of these things are inherently harmful, except maybe the junk food. In fact, studies show that the sounds of a coffee shop can actually boost creativity in some people.² On the other hand, in her bestselling book Quiet, author Susan Cain reports on studies that show that introverts (like myself) actually perform worse on basic tasks when they are working with significant background noise.³ The point is, noise does have an effect on us, whether we choose to notice or ignore it.
I’ve had a particularly noisy year.
This is a fact that only becomes clearer when I have opportunities to quiet down. The other thing I notice is that regularly practicing stillness equips me to better handle the noise. I’m not the first person to pick up on this. I’ve recently read that things like yoga and guided imagery meditation can provide cumultive calming effects similar to that of regular anti-anxiety medication. And I love reading about blogger and author Glennon Melton going to her special pillow when life gets too noisy, becoming still and listening for what she calls the Next Right Thing—isn’t that great?
What does this have to do with the guts?
Good question, and all part of my big plan for 2015. No, not plan—invitation. (I’m hoping that using the language of an invitation will keep the unwanted noise of expectations and “shoulds” from slipping in.) So here it goes:
In 2015, I invite myself to practice regular stillness, to quiet the noise and to listen to my gut—to listen to whatever is traveling along those millions of neural pathways and to receive the messages with an open heart.
And then, step two. When those messages have been fully digested, I invite myself to “spill my guts”—through what I write or create or put out there in the universe.
I know an invitation to be still might not appear “gutsy” in the way of skydiving or starting a business or moving to a new city. But when your comfort zone is defined by the constant buzz of deafening noise, a step into honest silence is certainly a step outside.
Peace (and quiet) to you in 2015.
Getting gutsy is all about stepping outside your comfort zone to reach your goals and live a life that makes you truly happy. This post is my entry for Jessica Lawlor’s Get Gutsy Essay Contest. To get involved and share your own gutsy story, check out this post for contest details and download a free copy of the inspiring Get Gutsy ebook.
- I did a bit of research on this, but these particular tidbits came from Adam Hadhazy’s article for Scientific American, “Think Twice: How the Gut’s ‘Second Brain’ Influences Mood and Well-Being.”
- If you can’t always get to Starbucks, check out the fantastic web app Noisli. It allows you to mix your own white noise “for working or relaxing” and is also available on iOS.
- Susan Cain’s Quiet is one of the best books I read all year. As someone who tends toward introversion and often feels pressured by society’s preference for salesman-types, I found this book both informative and empowering. I highly recommend it.