The incredible Dr Gabor Maté talks about how we’ve lost connection with the gut feeling and the terrible consequences this can bring.
And it turns out that the heart itself has a nervous system in the pericardium, which is the fibrous membrane that surrounds the heart, there’s a network of nerves which have predictive capacities. So when people say especially for negative things, so when you say, “Oh, I knew it in my heart”, you did. And that brain in the heart is connected to the brain up here, so that’s another kind of connection. So let me ask you this question, and I’ll ask for a show of hands, if you’ve had the following experience, please just put your hand up. That is, that you had a powerful gut feeling about something, and you ignored it, and you were sorry afterwards.
Now, why is it that the gut is so much stronger, so much brighter than the brain is, not the brain, but the mind, than the intellect, I should say? It’s very simple. Because the gut is connected to the brain, in fact, the gut sends many more connections to the brain than vice versa. When the gut receives messages from the brain, it reads them and it magnifies them and sends them back up to the brain. So the gut feelings tell you the whole picture. Your thoughts only tell you a small part of the picture.
So people who had a stroke in the part of the brain where language is processed, these are called aphasiacs, they’re much better able to tell when somebody is lying than the average person who can understand speech. Why do you suppose? Since they don’t understand the words, what are they paying attention to? The gut feelings, which read the body language of the person. Now there’s another large group of people, another large group of human beings who read gut feelings accurately and respond to them, and what do we call those people? Children, small children, young babies don’t listen to words, they don’t even understand them, but they react unerringly and intuitively to gut feelings.
And the story of your childhood is that you were born with the gut feelings intact and connected completely, but at some point something happened to you. At some point you got the message that in order to survive and to be acceptable, you have to suppress your gut feelings. Because here’s how it works. Children have two needs, infants, anybody, any human being, we have two basic needs, and the more immature we are, the more important the first need becomes, and that’s the attachment and attachment means that connection with another human being for the purpose of being taken care of.
That’s an absolute need of the small child. Can’t live without it, impossible. So that’s one large need. Another need, however, we have to function as full human beings is to be authentic. Authentic means that we know who we are, what we feel, we are able to express it and able to honor it in our behavior. And so we have the need for attachment and we have the need for authenticity. So far, so good. But what happens if in order to attach, we have to suppress our authenticity? Because our parents can’t handle who we are because they can’t handle our anger as two year olds, because they can’t handle our expression of our needs, because they’re too stressed, they’re too needy.
Then we suppress who we are, we suppress our authenticity and we suppress awareness of our gut feelings because the expression of them would bring us into conflict with our caregivers and threaten our attachments. And so our problem as adults is that a lot of our behaviors are still coming out of our need to attach, so we’re still behaving like little kids who need to attach and need to be liked, that need to be accepted and approved of, at the expense of our authenticity, and that people is what makes us sick. And it turns out that the heart itself has a nervous system in the pericardium, which is the fibrous membrane that surrounds the heart, there’s a network of nerves which have predictive capacities.
So when people say especially for negative things, so when you say, “Oh, I knew it in my heart”, you did. And that brain in the heart is connected to the brain up here, so that’s another kind of connection. So then naturally, whatever happens emotionally and how we live our lives has a huge impact on our physiology because these systems are not separate, they’re just one system. Given the unity of all these systems, it’s obvious that when you suppress the one, you’re suppressing the other.
Fundamentally, what happens is one way or the other, if you don’t know how to say no when you need to, your body will say it for you in the form of illness. So chronic illness represents the body saying no when you didn’t do it. Not your fault, this is how you were programmed before you had any choice in the matter. So again, it’s not a question of blame or self-blame, but it does mean that to prevent illness or if you have an illness to deal with it more effectively, you need to learn to assert who you are and to say no.
Dr Gabor Maté