We heart our hearts
It’s that time of year when hearts explode onto everything. Cards. Baked goods. All kinds of advertising. Valentine’s Day = hearts. Because it’s the organ we’ve come to associate not just with love, but with our emotional life in general.
We ‘follow our hearts’ when we make decisions. Then have a ‘change of heart’ when we decide we’d prefer something else. If we’re not interested, ‘our heart’s not in it’. If we’re cruel and cold then we’re ‘hard hearted’. We see the heart as central to life, both physically and emotionally.
But we don’t have much love for our guts
In fact, as Guilia Enders, author of Gut – the inside story of our body’s most under-rated organ, puts it, ‘people think it just hangs around inside our bellies, letting off a little “steam” every now and then… we’re ashamed of it: more “guilt feeling” than “gut feeling”!’
Enders is on a mission to raise the status of the gut and encourage us to celebrate all of its achievements, from the ‘masterly performance’ of going to the toilet to the ‘tour de force’ that is vomiting.
The gut brain
It certainly sounds like the gut can give the heart – and the brain for that (grey) matter – a run for its money. For one thing, the gut has a huge network of nerves called the ‘gut brain’ – as large and complex as the network in our actual brain. ‘Were the gut solely responsible for transporting food and the occasional burp, such a sophisticated nervous system would be an odd waste of energy,’ says Enders. ‘No body would create such a neural network to enable us to break wind. There must be more to it than that.’
What scientists are starting to consider is that the gut uses this neural network to influence our feelings and behaviour. Which is actually something that us non-scientists have been saying for years.
Think of all those idioms that evoke images of the digestive system: ‘being scared shitless’, ‘leaving a bad taste in your mouth’, ‘trusting our gut instinct’ and ‘getting butterflies in our stomach’. These vivid expressions suggest we feel just as intensely with our guts as with our hearts. And it sounds like we’ll soon have the scientific evidence to back this up. ‘Our “self” is created in our head and our gut – no longer just in language, but increasingly also in the lab,’ says Enders.
I gut you, babe
Maybe sometime soon our love affair with the heart will be over, and you’ll be buying your sweetheart (or sweetstomach?) a small-intestine-shaped box of chocolates and a card with a picture of a sphincter on it.