(The Neuroscience of Faith & Sanctification Series)
This is the second installment of the Neuroscience of Faith and Sanctification series. This is a fun series for me because it’s the perfect blend of neuroscience, therapy, and spiritual growth. I wanted to start with “Gut” level faith because there is some fascinating current research regarding the stomach and I think there have been some real struggles amongst many Christians when it comes to deeper levels of experiencing God.
I’ve quoted David Seamands before, a missionary, pastor and counselor who wrote his books about thirty years ago. He talks about our faith being more than an intellectual exercise. He points out that the bible refers to living waters flowing out of our bellies and refreshment in our “bowels” (John 7:38,Philemon 7:38). There is a “feltness” of God that is essential in any relationship. There is more than belief, there is a “gut-level basis of living with God.”
When I write about a gut-level, I’m referring to a more integrated experience encompassing our body, more specifically our stomachs. I know it sounds strange, but if you are even remotely connected with your body, you will recall times that you’ve felt sensations in your stomach related to anxiety, love, and excitement. When making a decision we often use the phrases “gut reaction.” Often the term “gut feeling” is referring to our instincts or intuition.
Gestalt therapy has long understood decisions and relationship as being more than simply intellectual decisions. When struggling to make a decision we are often waiting for some “umph” to push us in one direction or another. Zinker writes about this in his book about Gestalt therapy and asserts that the energy to do and create comes from our bodies, it is the “juice” we need. This may sound too much like New Age thinking or some fantasy talk, but I assure you that this is both the common experience and the neuroscience of our experiences. Have you ever had a dull conversation, listened to a dull lecture, felt lifeless while doing a task and yet at other times have felt engaged and energized? The difference may have been the “felt” sense of the experience and some of that has to do with your gut-level experience.
What does this mean from a neurological level? There is a part of the brain called the somatosensory cortex that makes sense of our bodily experiences. It actually creates pictures or maps in our brain of other parts of our body. This is the area that is associated with gut feelings and intuition. Cozzilino, an authority on neuroscience, explains that these feelings are connected to implicit memories (stored memories outside our awareness) and aid us in making “decisions with conviction” (Cozzilino, 2014)
These memories in connection with the somatosensory cortex become the bodily foundation for how we connect with others. When you get a good feeling about someone or feel distant from someone else, these experiences are part of that system. “Countless learning experiences are organized and sorted in right-hemisphere networks…[forming] gut feelings.” Without these “feelings” we would lack the capacity “to pull the trigger” and “lack a sense of certainty that comes from the body.” Gut feelings act “as a kind of visceral-emotional shorthand providing unconscious input.” (Cozzilino, 2014)
The most important aspect of this understanding is that our power to make decisions and interact with others requires our gut feelings AND these are developed through experiences NOT simply knowledge.
The most fascinating part of the term gut feelings is that new research has demonstrated that our stomachs actually operate independently of our brains. To date this is the only part of our body able to do so. There is a vast neural network in the area of the stomach referred to as the Enteric Nervous System (ENS). This is significant because we currently have only identified two other nervous systems: the central nervous system (CNS) and the auxiliary nervous system (ANS), both of these being controlled by the brain. But the ENS “acts like a microcomputer with its own independent software and is organized for program operations independent of input from the CNS” (Hansen, 2003). In other words, your stomach can perform operations without engaging your brain. It is its own system! Because of the unique way in which the stomach communicates with brain, unlike other parts of the body, the brain only gets a fuzzy picture of the stomach. The ENS is often referred to as the “little brain” or “second brain” (Powley, 2000).
From a therapeutic and spiritual perspective, this adds a great deal of insight. This, in connection with what I’ll talk about regarding the heart, explains in a tangible way why the father in the gospels can say to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief.” It’s why we can have knowledge but it doesn’t seem to impact us. It’s why I can know that God loves me and not really feel loved or valuable. The “gut” in particular is very resistant to be altered by the brain because the brain has a hard time communicating with and controlling the gut. Many people have accepted a loving God with their minds, but their guts still tell them that God cannot be trusted because that is the message of the accumulated implicit memories of relationships in their lives.
I will talk more about what we can do about this in later posts, but for now I want to remind us that true transformation occurs when we engage our brains, minds, hearts, and guts—our whole being. Feelings, both emotions and sensations, are not irrelevant. They form the foundation of our lived out faith.
Powley, T. L. (2000). Vagal input to the enteric nervous system. Gut, 47(suppl 4), iv30-iv32.
Hansen, M. B. (2003). The enteric nervous system I: organisation and classification. Basic & Clinical Pharmacology & Toxicology, 92(3), 105-113.
Furness, J. B. (2008). The enteric nervous system: normal functions and enteric neuropathies. Neurogastroenterology & Motility, 20(s1), 32-38.
Gershon, M. D. (1999). The enteric nervous system: a second brain. Hospital Practice, 34(7), 31-52.
Zinker, J. (1977). Creative process in Gestalt therapy. Brunner/Mazel.
Seamands, D. A. (1999). Healing grace: Finding freedom from the performance trap. Light and Life Communications.
Cozolino, L. (2014). The neuroscience of human relationships: Attachment and the developing social brain (Norton series on interpersonal neurobiology). WW Norton & Company.