On the opening episode of the Colbert Report, faux conservative Stephen Colbert expressed his preference for “guts” over facts:
That’s where truth comes from — the gut. Facts come from the brain — and some people think that makes facts better. But did you know you have more nerve endings in your stomach than in your brain? You can look it up….
Anyone can tell the news to you. I’m going to feel the news at you.
In Colbert’s signature parodic style, he appeals to the “common-sense” notion that “guts” matter more than “brains.” Even his dubious claim about nerve endings has some merit — though the brain clearly has many more neurons, it can’t sense tactile input the same way the organs in the human gut can.
The idea that “guts” literally serve some cognitive function isn’t as far-fetched as it may seem. Some research has found that different visceral states (e.g. indigestion, heartburn) map on to specific brain areas associated with emotion. The relationship between the gastrointestinal system and the brain is particularly complex, but little research has explored whether there is a direct link between our physical “guts” and our emotional responses.
A team led by Eduardo Vianna found a novel way to explore the relationship between guts and emotion. The key was patients with Crohn’s disease, an condition that increases feedback from the nerves in the gastrointestinal system to the brain. Crohn’s disease can have active and silent phases, so otherwise similar individuals can be easily compared.
Patients in both active and silent phases were shown movie scenes known to induce a variety of emotional states: Neutral (documentaries); Happiness (couples hugging or learning of a pregnancy); Disgust (dog hip-replacement surgery, woman eating dog feces); Sadness (death of a father; wife undergoing surgery); and Fear (horror films). Each patient was monitored with an electrogastrogram (like an electrocardiogram for the gut), and after each clip, the viewers rated their levels of each emotion on a scale of 1 to 7.
Even though their baseline levels of the emotions had been measured and found equal prior to the study, patients expressed different levels of the emotional arousal depending on the phase of the disease:
This graph shows that patients in active phase of Crohn’s disease experienced emotions that were significantly more intense after watching the disgust-, fear-, and sadness-inducing clips than patients in the silent phase.
So when you say that someone who shows little emotion in the face of danger has “guts,” you may literally be talking about the condition of their gastrointestinal tract, not just their mental discipline. The electrogastrogram measurements support this notion as well:
As patients in the active Crohn’s phase experienced more intense emotions, their electrogastrogram levels increased significantly. But there was no correlation between these levels and emotional arousal in the silent phase patients.
So when Stephen Colbert suggests that it’s better to use your “gut” instead of your brain to make judgments, he may simply be reflecting the natural way humans experience emotions. What’s less certain is whether using your gut instead of relying on facts to guide actions is actually a better strategy for success in the modern world.
Vianna, E.P.M., Weinstock, J., Elliott, D., Summers, R., & Tranel, D. (2006). Increased feelings with increased body signals. SCAN, 1, 37-48.