In Star Wars, the Millennium Falcon popped out of hyperspace and nearly ran into the Death Star. Han Solo looked at the looming space station and famously said

I’ve got a very bad feeling about this.

Let’s talk about feelings — but not the way you think. Let’s talk about food and intuition and the subconscious — and demolish some cherished myths. And in the end, the truth will — as usual — be stranger than fiction. That’s my gut instinct anyway.

And what is a “gut instinct”?

A visceral reaction — an immediate, emotional, instinctive response to something. That’s viscera, the Latin word for the body cavity and its entrails. Innards. Guts. The Dantian, in Qigong and Taijijuan.

Comedy is visceral: The belly laugh. Side splitting. Rib tickling. Gut busting.

Do you stop eating when you are stressed, or do you eat because you are stressed? Ever get “butterflies” in the stomach, or intestinal cramps, before an important event?

Ever wonder why antidepressants (which work on the brain) cause stomach problems?


Long ago, food was the one important thing in life: eat, rather than being eaten. So the first nerves to develop were in the esophagus, stomach, small intestine and colon. This is the limbic system, what Carl Sagan liked to call the reptilian brain.

Eventually this brain developed a satellite brain, in the skull. Both brains still develop from the same source, called the neural crest. But the old brain still rules. It has more nerves than the spinal cord. And like the spinal cord, the old brain transmits and processes messages.

That is why injuries to the “vital organs” are so devastating — they are actually brain injuries.

The brain in your gut is the enteric nervous system. And when one brain gets upset, the other does, too.

Dr. Michael Gershon, a professor of anatomy and cell biology at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, said that in the bad old days, people with ulcers, people who had problems swallowing or who suffered chronic abdominal pain, were told that their problems were all in their heads.

See a psychiatrist.

Doctors were right in ascribing these problems to the brain, Dr. Gershon said, but they blamed the wrong brain!

Not so long ago, the so-called Maalox moment of advertising fame showed how the old and new brains really interact, according to Dr. Jackie D. Wood, chairman of the department of physiology at Ohio State University in Columbus.

Brain diseases also show how the two brains interact. Victims of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s suffer from constipation, showing that the nerves in both brains are very sick. Epilepsy, migraine, and autism are all linked to ailments in the old brain. Acid reflux disease is related to Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, which are actually psychoses of the gut.

The bowel may not misbehave because a person is crazy, but a misbehaving bowel can drive anyone mad. — Dr Gershon

But is it really misbehaving? Or is one wise in years and experience having a tough time getting through to the noisy, oblivious youngster upstairs? After all, the old brain has a history of millions and millions of years of successful independent living. It has its own ways of learning, and its own ways of remembering.

Already know you that which you need. — Yoda

Your enteric brain could be the repository of that “still, small voice” that speaks to us when it is quiet, as the prophet Elijah said. Dr. Candace Pert showed how molecules known as peptides give us emotions and memory. More than 20 years ago she hinted that the brain in your gut is actually your subconscious mind.

The gut’s brain and the head’s brain act the same way when they are cut off from the world, says Dr David Wingate, a professor of gastrointestinal science at the University of London and a consultant at Royal London Hospital. While you sleep, the head brain and the gut brain synchronize their 90-minute cycles of slow waves and their separate periods of rapid muscle movements. People with bowel ailments often have abnormal REM sleep.

You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!  — Ebenezer Scrooge to the ghost of Jacob Marley, in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol

The old brain affects our dreams, when the noisy kid upstairs finally shuts up. And the gut brain is an old animal, so it communicates like one: in images, feelings, smells, actions, and noises — even archetypes, because Jung believed archetypes were a biological inheritance.

Archetypes may be the gut bacteria we inherit from our parents and those around us.

In Conclusion

You have two brains. So do other vertebrates. We all enjoy food and probably share a sense of humor.

One human brain agonizes over what wine to serve for dinner, while the other brain rumbles its displeasure and would be happy eating the dinner rolls. The noisy brain announces dinner is just fabulous after two bites. The quiet brain will get back to you — when you least expect it.

What else do we know?

Breaking bread with people, and hearty laughter, are more meaningful than we thought.

Food is medicine. The way to a man’s deep thought processes evidently is through his stomach. And, perhaps most importantly, if you are having a lot of headaches, or a lot of Maalox moments, it’s time to ask why.

Search your feelings. You know it to be true.