• John Teske

Your Guts

I’ve been told that leaving academia when I did, at the relatively tender age of 63, and at the top of my scholarly and teaching game, “took guts.” It is true that I’d only recently been elected to an international scholarly society, co-organized a conference for what was once my primary identity organization, and gotten an unprecedented second senior merit award at my little liberal arts college. I’d also married a student, and the semester after my salary went to six figures, I took a parental leave. I couldn’t believe I was getting away with that. And perhaps I wasn’t. I’d both been an administrative fly in the ointment for years (a full Professor for 20 years can do that, and probably should), and the outrageous classroom style that made me effective as a teacher, was increasingly found “uncomfortable,” or even “offensive” by some of the more sensitive millennial students* [see note].

Administrators were fearful enough to actively want me gone. Since they were giving a nice “early retirement” offer, it seemed to be the “right time,” o kairos. I was told by a colleague that I would leave a “living legend.” I had a wonderful send-off from the entire group of graduating seniors in my History of Psychology course, making gumbo for a “Last Supper.” At their senior luncheon, not only did I share the experience of many of them about what they were going to do next, “beats the heck out of me,” but the precipitousness of my departure meant that my retirement gift was the same coffee cup given to the graduating seniors. My department had also just hired two superb new faculty members, just under the bar of a hiring freeze. So it was also the right thing to do.

I loved being a college professor. The intellectual interplay of scholarship, the opportunities to speak all over the world, and the excitement of being in front of a classroom, still made me feel like a god, even when top-down administrative decrees and decreasingly motivated students made it all the more sour, occasionally even nauseating. Gut feelings. Tess Vigeland, in her book Leap, a memoir about leaving her incredible job, a job she felt she was meant for, and loved for years, talks about such feelings, “I’ve come to believe, without reservation, that no matter how hard it’s been, it was the right thing to do.”

"I believe that you know in your belly, what you have to do and what’s best for you. The hurdle you have to get over is the rest of your body, your head and your heart which are actively telling you to ignore your gut. I interviewed about eighty people who had also left their careers without knowing what they wanted to do next, and most of them had been ignoring their guts for months if not years. But we know when something is wrong." (Vigeland)

A study using the Iowa Gambling Task, also illustrated in my blog on “Anticipation” of 1.14.2018, in which the participants are given multiple decks to pick cards from, one of which includes some catastrophic losses, despite superior gains. It takes participants forty or fifty cards to figure out that this deck is a serious loser and stop picking cards from it. But their stressful bodily response to the losing deck, measured by Galvanic Skin Response (GSR), starts appearing after only ten cards, well in advance of their consciousness that something is amiss. So, unless you are brain damaged, your body knows something is up, and it may start showing signs well before you know it is time to go. It may manifest as any number of bodily symptoms, from unexplained pains, illness, or an exhaustion beyond what is justified by workload. You probably shouldn't ignore these. “What’s it like to leave a job you’re still good at, still love, and can’t imagine life without and to do it devoid of any idea of what you want to do next?” It may be making you sick.

A new Humanist Club I’d sponsored on Campus, a no-holds-barred forum for discussions which students couldn’t have elsewhere, even among their peers, summarily vanished. While one of my colleagues would carry the torch for “embodied cognition,” in his research course, and they’d have a new offering in Health Psychology, I was sad that Emotion would be dropped. Though such an undergraduate course is rare, for historical reasons, I still find it disturbing that psychology students, most of whom are headed to lives as therapists or human services workers would not have taken such a course. These days, with college debt loads running so high, students may also be less likely to pursue graduate training, and even there a course in the science of emotion would not be common, and the research in this area has blossomed of late. So I find myself validated reading Antonio Damasio’s newest (2018) book The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures. Damasio does a remarkable job, relating much of the evolution of nervous systems to the maintenance of the basic homeostasis of living organisms, and ultimately makes a case, a reflection of much contemporary research, for the ubiquity of embodied emotion in everything we think, feel, or do. It was Damasio’s somatic marker hypothesis of a generation ago, in Descartes’ Error (1995) that suggested that our very consciousness was predicated on the bodily feelings that accompanied our cognitive image of the world, and ourselves in it, summarized succinctly now as “no body, never mind.”

Whether one has “guts” or not is only one reference to those bodily “gut” feelings that are sometimes hard to discern, but can be a useful guide, at least in some circumstances. Having “guts” may, interestingly, be one of those times that we actually don’t have a gut feeling -- I’ve often thought that being courageous, “having guts,” is often in the mind of the beholder, not the agent, who often doesn’t feel very courageous at all, like the young boy saving his sister from a fire, who just said he thought it was something anybody would do. Or the soldier who finally leads a charge just because he was the first to get frustrated enough, or the one too scared to remain where they were. Courage certainly is related to what most people would be afraid to do, but that doesn’t always mean that its agent was managing fear, or that anyone really “feels courageous,” except, perhaps, after the fact. But there are surely other “gut” feelings that are important. Like feeling that the dark neighborhood you are walking in at night is a place you maybe shouldn’t be. Or the kinds of information we sometimes use our dogs to pick up on, like whether someone at our door is trustworthy or not.

There is a wonderful story told by Oliver Sacks in his collection of stories about patients with various kinds of brain damage The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, about “The President’s Speech.” There was a televised speech by President Reagan during the Iran Contra affair where he may have actually been less than honest (but probably had “plausible deniability”). The aphasics, watching the television in their ward, who really couldn’t understand language as such, were laughing at what might have been over-acted nonverbal behavior, the kind of information we miss out on in text-based communication, but which we use in real life to detect falseness in speech. Another woman, with alexic agnosia, who couldn’t read facial expressions, but was particularly discerning about word use, found that the president was “not cogent.” But it is surely our “gut feeling” about someone that makes us rightfully wary with our trust. And even if we are wrong, it may be that we are better safe than sorry, so mistakes may be in our favor.

So a “gut feeling” that something is just not quite right can be something we should take into account. There are other gut feelings, say, that we may actually feel a bit of nausea when someone “makes me sick” even if this is due to moral disgust rather than simple digestive difficulty. And there is that “sinking feeling” in our stomachs when we know that something is about to, or just has gone terribly wrong, or the angst that every college student knows when they hit that late night point writing a paper when they wonder whether the things they are saying, or whether their lives in general, really make sense at all. Or that feeling I had once at a bad breakup, of an iron hand pulling me by the heart, down to my knees, in front of my refrigerator. My tenure denial at Penn State was similar, but not quite as bad, as my week knees still held me up -- and I could even think, “This isn’t as bad as the breakup with my first love.” When I returned to my empty house, after the woman I would later quite happily marry moved out, I just felt a horrible, clawing emptiness.

The most obvious git feeliong, of course, is probably those “butterflies in the stomach” of anxiety, the feeling that almost everyone has of public speaking, which often gets rated as one of people’s worst fears. Even as a professor who had spoken in front of classes for a generation, there was still that frisson of anxiety right at the beginning of a class and, as I knew all too well, an elevated level of arousal standing in front of a classroom full of eager, and not so eager faces for 75 minutes. Of course, after enough times feeling like a god by the end of class, I would find that experience to be my personal metier.

What is most important to know, however, to which Damasio’s most recent book alerted me, is that we actually have a “second brain,” the enteric brain, a network of 100-600 million neurons, more than the entire spinal cord, which is coextensive with the gastrointestinal tract, from esophagus to anus. It is organized much like the reticular activating system, a network of neurons running from the brain stem well into the cortex. This latter system mediates most of our overall level of cortical arousal, from unconscious sleep to high-alert, to which almost any sensory stimulus contributes, and which must be actively inhibited for quiescence. I remember memorizing a whole page of ascending, and a whole page of descending reticular activating influences for an exam in physiological psychology as an undergraduate in the early 70’s (my professor kindly gave me one extra point when I diagrammed these influences on the back of a test that didn’t actually ask for any of it). But the enteric brain is not often referred to in medical teaching, as part of the “peripheral” nervous system, and has only been recently studied in any detail. But this system is huge, and indispensable. Moreover, the system is largely autonomous, as there are 2000 intrinsic neurons to every extrinsic one, so most of its communication, like in the central nervous system, is interior intercommunication.

The enteric brain could fairly be called a “second brain,” although as a nerve net around the gut, it is evolutionarily well prior to the central nervous system, as something like this existed in Precambrian Cnidaria, which literally look like digestive sacks that float for a living. Structures which will become the central nervous system don’t appear until the Cambrian. Like much of what occurs in the unbounded integration of the central nervous system with the body, where unmyelinated neurons are also responding to all sorts of chemical and hormonal signals (making nervous system and body nigh undifferentiable even from what we usually think of as the nervous system), so too the neurons of the enteric brain are not myelinated, and their axons can be bundled together by enteric glial cells. This allows, both in the nervous system/body connection and within the enteric brain for ephaptic conduction, the orthogonal axonal interactions with the body which also occur in the peripheral nervous system. Hence a small number of axons can amplify signals by recruiting bundled fibers, connecting fibers to nearby territories, producing the vaguely localized feelings arising from the gastrointestinal system. So, the enteric brain plays an important role in these feelings and intuitions that combine to form graded experiences of global well-being.

The vagus nerve is the pathway by which the small extrinsic fraction of the enteric nervous system projects to the central nervous system. Our experience of nausea is similarly mediated, and digestive disorders often correlate with pathologies of mood. This is no surprise since the enteric nervous system also produces 95% of the body’s serotonin, the neurotransmitter which plays such an important role in disorders of affect and their correction, as with the serotonin-reuptake inhibitors (SRIs) like Prozac. The fact that our symbiosis with bacteria, occupying any space between mucosae and skin, particularly where they fold, is particularly pronounced in the gut, where there are more bacteria than individual human cells, suggests an interesting direction for research on the relationship between bacteria and the feelings mediated by the enteric brain.

What interests me is the vagal pathway. This is the primary pathway of the parasympathetic nervous system, the branch of the autonomic nervous system responsible for “rest and digest.” Alternatively, it is the sympathetic nervous system responsible for “fight or flight,” and as I pointed out in “Forbidden Knowledge” (4.11.2018), probably also copulation. Stephen Porges’s Polyvagal Theory actually divides the parasympathetic vagal complex into two parts.

Porges argues that the dorsal vagal system is the most phylogenetically primitive, with primarily unmyelinated neurons fostering digestion, and which responds to novelty or threat by reducing cardiac output. It has primary control of the visceral organs below the diaphragm (your guts), including digestive gustatory and hypoxic responses. This is the complex involved in immobilization, to freeze and monitor distant threat, or to play dead, and not be the target of a predator. It may also be important to the functioning of the fearful or the shy, inhibiting motion and producing an attentional bias toward possible threat. According to Kekuni Minton, Pat Ogden, and Claire Pain in Trauma and the Body, it is also responsible for the hypoarousal associated with traumatized individuals, including reduced physical motion, reduced sensation, numbed emotional response, and a disabling of cognitive processes, as might be appropriate for a prey animal during a mortal attack, or a person exposed to intolerable or inescapable levels of threat or stress.

The evolution of a sympathetic nervous system would enable the rapid increase of metabolic output, inhibiting the more primitive vagal response to foster the mobilization for fight or flight, but also for other episodic bursts of activity or arousal. Its primary characteristic is to produce a state of hyperarousal, increasing sensory response, emotional reactivity, hypervigilance, intrusive imagery, and disorganized cognitive response. This is the state at which your attention is narrowly focused, and you are more likely to engage in overlearned or previously repeated responses, rather than responding with greater tact or nuance. This is why, for example, both police and military training for potentially lethal situations involve overlearning responses, making them more accessible under difficult circumstances. Or why athletes repeat the same drills endlessly, and their coaches try to ramp them up before competition. It is also why therapists encourage married couples under duress to take “time out” when their heart rates go too far above normal, else they will repeat the same conflicts, have the same arguments repeatedly, and fail to arrive at novel and integrative alternatives.

The ventral vagal system is the most recent phylogenetically, unique to mammals, and involves a myelinated system that can rapidly regulate cardiac output to respond to the environment. This is what would lead to better regulated states of arousal, like what might be necessary to signal availability or promote proximity tpotential consort, and involve much less passionate emotional states.This is what Minton, Ogden, and Paine call a “window of tolerance” for the optimal levels of arousal necessary for more flexible and responsive actions.

Often people describe themselves as being “stressed” simply because they are not in a constant state of quiescent relaxation. We know that hypoarousal is also not productive, however much it may sometimes be necessary for survival. But some level of arousal, of mobilization or activity, is necessary to accomplish anything worthwhile in the world, and sometimes more arousal is quite adaptive. Research shows that when an adaptive autonomic response is treated as valuable information that something is a genuine challenge or threat, rather than as a response that itself should be avoided, many of the effects that can impact our health negatively, like the constriction of blood vessels and the increases in blood pressure, do not do so.

Remember the scene in The 300, where a youthful warrior in training has learned to treat his fear of a huge dire wolf as a “heightened sense of things.” I think we all might benefit by understanding more of our “stresses” as, in fact, the valuable challenges that they often are, and treat our bodies as allies rather than opponents. And perhaps better discern the information provided by our guts, the state of our bodily physiology and our emotinal states (and surely those of others, which is not possible in text-based communication). It is not those with training in reading subtleties of emotion who have the more successful relationships, it is those who are sufficiently expressive, such that reading each other’s states is not a difficult task. Indeed, while concealment of our bodies and our emotional expressions may make us feel less vulnerable, it ultimately makes us feel greater “stress” when we come out of hiding, and retards the intimacy for which we so long. It really doesn’t take a lot of guts to, well, just show up.


*Note on Millenials, the last of who were graduating seniors in 2017, including my "Last Supper" group, among whom I now number some of my better alumni friends, and to whom I must apologize for my misuse.

While I am using “Millenials” as a kind of shorthand, this is a bit of a misuse of the term. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt make this clear in their new book The Coddling of the American Mind (2018), begun with an article they originally wrote for The Atlantic, to which the link in the blog directs you. Many of my students would actually have herd. Jonathan Haidt speak about some of these issues at a public lecture at our little college in the spring of 2017. Millenials are those born between about 1982 and 2000. But as Jean Twenge’s research makes clear (in a book by their name, iGen, 2017), there is a greater discontinuity beginning at about birth year 1995, so she dubs this next generation (sometimes called Generation Z) the internet generation, or iGen. This group suffers from higher rates of anxiety and depression than did Millenials at the same age. There was a rapid growth in social media after the iPhone was introduced in 2007, and by 2011 most of them could check on their social media status every few minutes, and often did. It is the iGen who are “obsessed with safety,” and define it as including “emotional safety,” which leads many of them to believe that they should be safe not just from car accidents and sexual assault, but from people who disagree with you. The demands for safety and censorship accelerated the demands for “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” beginning when the iGen began arriving on campus in 2013, and spread rapidly across the next four years, just as Millenials were leaving. A college psychology course on Emotion, the last place to encourage “emotional safety,” was not destined to survive. Upon my retirement in 2017, the course on Emotion, my proud addition to the department’s “hard psychology” offerings, immediately disappeared from the curriculum.