Whenever someone who doesn’t know me quizzes me about what I do, I often find myself talking to a person’s raised eyebrows. As I explain that I’m a journalist who researches the connection between our mind, body and health, I usually find that I’m met with skepticism at best and cynicism at worst. Since releasing my film about the subject, I’ve met countless others working in this space who experience the same frustration. In a world full of quackery, it can be hard to cut through with real science. Over the years I’ve developed a few ‘go-to’ examples of the new science of the mind body connection to explain what I’m on about and for this blog post I thought I’d share one of them.
In 1899 two English scientists named William Bayliss and Ernest Starling were studying the gut of an anaesthetised dog when they made an intriguing observation. The physiologists had been working together to study the movements and contractions in the digestive tract, which moved food from one place to another. They had called this effect the ‘law of the intestine’ and believed that nerves were responsible for coordinating this automatic function. What was interesting in the particular dog they were studying was that when they cut communication between the gut and the central nervous system, their ‘law of the intestine’ still prevailed. In other words, Bayliss and Starling had discovered that the gut can still perform its duties if it’s not talking to the brain.
Unfortunately the world would more or less forget about the discovery of this independently functioning nervous system for a hundred years or so and we continued along as though the brain was an all mighty dictator of bodily function and the single determinate of all things emotional. But in 1998 Michael Gershon, a Professor at Columbia University published a landmark book called The Second Brain: Your Gut Has a Mind of Its Own and the game changed.
The book was part memoir and part detailed explanation of Gershon’s discovery of the neurochemistry of what he called the second brain. The book’s publication and Gershon’s subsequent appearances on television talk shows and in mainstream magazine feature articles finally gave the remarkable second brain the notoriety it deserved. Gershon is regarded as the father of the field now known as neurogastroenterology.
Through the work of Gershon and others, we have come to understand that deep within our gut walls lies an enteric nervous system which can not only talk to our brain, but it also has the ability to act independently and can influence our behavior…