By Dr. Andrea Sibylle Claussen, July 11, 2020
Is it possible that we have two brains? One in our head and one in our belly?
When I studied medicine the location of “feelings” was exclusively in one brain. The brain located in our skull.
I can remember, every time nature moved me to feel something, that feeling to me did not express itself in my head. Instead I felt the appreciation, the beauty, the connection in the area of my heart and my tummy. Again, almost like when you are physically attracted to someone, the butterflies flutter in your tummy, not in your head.
This left me with the following question:
Which of our brains are stimulated or inspired when we are in nature?
Are we listening and responding to nature more with our cognitive brain or our gut brain?
And how would we know which one is involved? Do they express the same, act the same, feel the same?
More and more scientists are doing research on the “brain- gut connection” stating that we have a brain in our head called Central nervous system CNS and a brain in our belly, called ENS. “Enteric nervous system”.
Our belly brain has more than 100 millions nerve cells. Our entire gut-system is covered by a thin, very thin spider web made out of nerve cells. It is microscopically thin – but oh so sophisticated and functional.
The main role of ENS is to absorb and manage the complicated process of digestion.
And as we know - we as humans not only absorb food, we also absorb a myriad of other things such as impressions, conversations, assumptions. The biggest of these digestions most probably are feelings. Feelings can be absorbed both as positive and negative and both have an enormous impact on our body system. On the positive side I think we can all relate to that: a warm and relaxed feeling in your belly when we feel loved and acknowledged. I am not even talking about the butterflies in the tummy when we are freshly in love.
Then on the other side lies the negative emotions, the ones that leave you afraid, insecure, scared or unloved. And I am sure you know at least one person who gets problems in his or her belly when under stress? Diarrhea, bloating, constipation, pain.
So, there is a lot going on in the belly. Can this gut brain even think?
Researchers found something really interesting: The gut cannot think by itself. It just not has the same capacity as the brain in our skull. But what it can do is that it can communicate back and forth with our brain in our skull. Back and forth, back and forth – all the time. And the researchers even consider that depression and anxiety can occur because of an irritation in the gut system. And 30-40% of the population has bowel problems at some point of their lives that might be as a result of the guts inability to do this back and forth communication with the brain in our skull.
This may explain why a high percentage of people with a chronic inflammation of the bowel develop depression and anxiety.
Gut and brain, ENS and CNS “talk” to each other. And this is why treatments like mind-body therapy works very well because it helps both brains and they can help each other to regain balance.
This bi-directional chat between these two brains works through neural, endocrine and immune signals. This means there is a constant flow of hormones, neurotransmitters like serotonine, immune reactions and activity in the soft tissue of the bowel.
So, the main key to wellbeing is to improve the communication between the skull brain CNS and the gut brain ENS.
And here nature comes into the scene: Nature calms the mind and there is less cognitive stimuli to be digested.
We need to become aware that our thinking and our feeling has to firstly align and secondly be processed - not only in our cognitive mind, that is to say in the CNS, but also in our gut brain, the ENS. And ENS-gut brain then also needs to digest information that comes from the skull brain. It needs time to process and appreciate.
In these times, it is easy to overeat not only with too much food but also too much information. There is a lot of information and expectations that need to be filtered and digested in a very short space of time.
It´s a little bit like when people used to send letters to each other by post, everyone had to wait days or weeks or even months for the letters to go back and forth. So, there was time to digest the content, think upon it and respond as and when we were ready. We waited sometimes a week or more for an answer. And the receiver of a letter could digest the content of the letter, think about it and then answer. There was no expectation of getting back to a person as soon as possible to remain credible and responsive.
What is needed in these times of uncertainty and digital tsunami? Time is needed to reset both our brains on a regular basis. Our brains need a break, recovery time – like a muscle needs a break after an intense workout.
This means it is important to press the internal re-set button to release the tension that has piled up. This reset will allow the two brains to realign themselves. It is when these two are out of synch that we often feel a mismatch between information, communication, expectations and the ability of our two brains to digest the input.
Can you eat three chocolate cakes in a row? No. One maybe. But three is just too much.
So, one easy way to release tension in our system is to spend time in nature. Some researchers say that even 10 minutes per day is enough. There is even evidence that plants in a room have an impact on your level of stress and anxiety.
Even our brains need basic housekeeping in order to maintain our everyday life’s, as our schedules just do not allow us to spend hours in nature or in a natural environment.
Some of you might say: I meditate. Well, of course you can meditate. But many people have problems with stopping their brains thinking and they perceive meditation as another burden or task they need to do to gain a benefit for their health. Meditation is very beneficial. Being in nature is also very powerful.
If you are interested in aligning yourself, to reset yourself - then perhaps you could try the following, even starting today to get in touch with your brains. The following exercise is not based on proven scientific research. It is a possible and safe experiential approach, just to get a feel. Try to figure out whether you can feel something in your body or not. Explore it. Get a sense of alignment and relaxation by just paying attention by doing very little things. Train your awareness not to get something but rather to stay curious around what might happen – or not.
Here is what you could do:
Go outside. Wherever you are. Be it in the big city. Be it in your little village while you are at home.
Put your timer on your alarm on for 10 minutes.
The moment you are outside. Stop walking. Just stand still. You can close your eyes or keep your eyes open. Then try to get a feel for the direction your “gut” wants to go. Your intuition. Not you in your skull brain. Where do you feel drawn to? Left or right?
Observe. What is happening during this observation? And remember: There is no good or bad, right or wrong with this decision.
I want you to focus on the feeling of: where do I feel drawn to – not what do I see and what do I want to do next.
While you are doing this, don’t forget to breathe slowly through your nose. Yes, your nose. Not your mouth.
Take your time. Then start moving into the direction that feels good in this very moment. Enjoy the moment of this decision that purely came out of your gut brain. Continue for a while with your own pace and stop when your clock rings.
After this experiment, you may immediately feel more relaxed and refreshed, maybe you even have a little smile on your face.
The thinking part of you will immediately question you in asking: What am I doing here? Is this really working – and then your gut brain might respond with: but ahh – why not!
Try it out. In the city or in nature. Observe how birds “decide” to fly in a certain direction. It´s easy and light. Effortless. Its fun.
Please let me know about your experience, when you did what your gut told you and ENS and CNS felt kind of aligned.
How was it?
Write me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Here is an interesting link:
You can listen to this article on my podcast "Coaching in nature".