When someone says, “I have a gut feeling…” we all understand the importance of that intuition. Scientist are now posting findings that the nerves in our stomach are just as sensitive as those in our hands. Understanding this gut-brain connection can help us create more caring lifestyle choices.
Brain 1 and Brain 2
Most people think about all the nerves in our hands, mouth, and feet; this is the central nervous system. What is interesting is the nerves that comprise a network of nerves that line the digestive tract, aka the enteric nervous system: Brain 2. The second nervous system is a two-ply lining made up of 100 million plus nerve cells. This “the second brain” is in constant contact with the brain in our headl. Ever wonder why you feel butterflies in your stomach before a big speech, or get hungry when watching an ad for a restaurant. These are examples of the gut-brain connection.
Scientists thought the two systems communicate only by hormones produced by cells in the gut’s lining. This process happens once food or bacteria are detected. The cells release a message that prompts the nervous system to act accordingly. However, this process is now found to be more direct. Diego Bohórquez from Duke University discovered that the two nervous systems make physical contact to form synapses with nerves.
How can we see this process?
Diego Bohórquez and his colleagues use a 3D electron microscopy to take a look at the guts. The images revealed that there are actually tiny protrusions in the gut that also have a foot-like portion that extends out. Imaging them in this way reveals a whole new structure. “It became evident that enteroendocrine cells have similar physical attributes to neurons, so we wondered whether they might be wired to neurons, too.” (ideas.ted.com) In the procedure, the cells of the gut began glowing green. This provides physical evidence that the sensor cells indeed behave as neurons.
This discovery can help further treatment research for conditions such as eating disorders, IBS, and more that are often under the label: psychological. These diseases all share a symptom, hyper- or hypo sensitivity to gut stimuli. “For instance, clinical observations have suggested that some children with anorexia may be hyper-aware of the food they ingest from an early age…Under normal circumstances, this process happens without detailed spatial and temporal awareness, but those children can feel what’s going on in there, which triggers anxious feelings.” (Bohórquez) These discoveries go beyond the gut to the lining other organs. Some examples include our lungs, prostate and vagina which all have sensor cells similar to our guts. “Future exploration will continue to uncover how the brain perceives signals from these organs and how they affect how we feel.” he says.” (Bohórquez)
If you are looking forward to reading more about Unified Caring Association and other caring acts, check out our other blogs: Volunteering for Health, It all Starts with Self-Care, and Monitoring Health with Biofeedback. Or visit our website to check out our Caring News, membership benefits, and other healthcare tools! Would you like more? Follow us on Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, and Twitter!
Unified Caring Association (UCA) loves sharing with our caring community. The topics that we love to share often relate back to emotional intelligence. One component that is closely relates to emotional intelligence in empathy. There is just one troubling thing. We often have a hard time describing what empathy is and how we teach it to others. In our search for more information on empathy we have come across some great examples on how to bring more empathy to the world and our caring community. Let’s start from the top…
How can we define something like empathy?
In short, empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of one or more people. We can take this definition a step further. We can add that we are then are able to express our feelings and connection with the others. This requires one thing, active listening with our whole being by using our eyes, ears, body language, minds, and more. This is because listening is a strong way to show that you care about the other person and the topic that they are passionate about. Brigette Hyacinth has a good point about listening, “The quality of our listening determines the quality of our influence…[and] listening transmits that kind of respect and builds trust.” (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/empathy-most-important-leadership-skill-needed-today-hyacinth/) Overall, when we listen to others and understand what they are saying when they connect with us we demonstrate that we value others and have empathy for them.
Empathy and Denmark
There have been many studies about how Denmark is one of the happiest and nicest places to live. “This is according to the UN’s World Happiness Report, an important survey that since 2012 classifies the happiness of 155 countries in the world, and that for seven years has placed Denmark among the top three happiest countries on a global level.” (https://www.morningfuture.com/en/article/2019/04/26/empathy-happiness-school-denmark/601/) A big factor in this relates back to how people in Denmark seem to value and incorporate empathy in their lives. This can be seen through the prominent concept of “hygge.” Hygge is a phenomenon closely related to Danish culture; this word is both a verb and an adjective and does not have an English equivalent. “Hygge could be defined as ‘intentionally created intimacy.’ In a country where it gets dark very early in the year, it rains, it’s gray, hygge means bringing light, warmth and friendship, creating a shared, welcoming and intimate atmosphere.” (https://www.morningfuture.com/en/article/2019/04/26/empathy-happiness-school-denmark/601/) This is a fundamental Danish concept that creates a sense of well-being. Interestingly, hygge is becoming a global phenomenon! If you search for hygge on Amazon, you will get about 6,000 results, most of which are books. Instagram has more than Amazon, with #hygge racking up 5.2 million posts and counting! SO, how does a culture foster a concept like empathy so effectively? The answer: By teaching, learning and practicing from the ground up with kids.
Teaching Kids Empathy
Danish schools have a unique curriculum incorporated in their education plans. Students 6-16 years old spend about one hour a week in school dedicated to empathy. These lessons are called “Klassen tid.” This is a fundamental part of learning life skills for these students, much like learning English, science or math for U.S. students. During this hour “…students discuss their problems, either related to school or not, and the whole class, together with the teacher, tries to find a solution based on real listening and understanding. If there are no problems to discuss, children simply spent the time together relaxing and enjoying hygge.” (https://www.morningfuture.com/en/article/2019/04/26/empathy-happiness-school-denmark/601/) This time spent on exploration, problem solving and growth of emotional intelligence helps the students connect with each other through activities that build empathy. Unlike other places in the world, there is no stigma or stress connected to this emotion. The stronger the understanding of empathy the longer and more sincere the student’s relationships are. These enduring relationships correlate to the prevention of bullying and success at work.
Empathy is a Life Skill
As we said before, empathy helps people be successful in their careers. This is because they are able to connect with their peers, are more goal oriented, and adept at team work related tasks. If we look back at Denmark, 60% of tasks in schools are teamwork based. Thus these tasks require the children to understand empathy in order to achieve good results. However, the focus of these results is not to excel over others, but to lift up your teammates that are struggling with the tasks. The success of the team is therefore the goal that everyone is striving for. It is because of the students’ skills in empathy that Denmark is often touted as one of the best places to have a career in Europe.
Empathy is then coupled with the viewpoint that competition is with yourself and not with others. Instead, Danes practice the culture of motivation to improve and the measurement is exclusively in relation to themselves. This is vastly different from the prominent mentality in the U.S. where the goal is to beat the other person and to strive for a win even if it is at the cost of your peers. “The Danes give a lot of space to children’s free play, which teaches empathy and negotiation skills. Playing in the country has been considered an educational tool since 1871.” (https://www.morningfuture.com/en/article/2019/04/26/empathy-happiness-school-denmark/601/) Most of this is achieved through collaborative learning. This style of learning involves bringing together children with various strengths and weaknesses in different subjects. The teams of students then help each other with their studies by working together on various topics and projects. This format teaches the kids that they need each other to be successful and to connect they will need empathy. Jessica Alexander comments that, “Many studies show that when you explain something to someone…you not only learn the subject much better than you would do by memorizing it yourself, but you also build empathy skills which are further strengthened by having to be careful about the way the other person receives the information, and having to put oneself in their shoes to understand how learning works.” (https://www.morningfuture.com/en/article/2019/04/26/empathy-happiness-school-denmark/601/)
The results are echoed by Avery Konda, who recently tried to explain the concept of empathy to kids. After trying to talk with children and pull out responses from them (which fell short of what he was looking for), he began to play with the kids. Through this play time with toys he helped the children discover deeper meanings of empathy. Konda concluded, “Students learn more from gamified activities that allow them to learn skills through application, more than they do through PowerPoints and traditional teaching…[They] take away more when they’re required to live and breathe the topic of conversation.” (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/why-empathy-most-important-skill-world-today-avery-konda/?trackingId=ltUkZUWiNiFJLSRQ45YbyA%3D%3D) This is fascinating for all of us who are trying to excel in our careers, and for those that are raising children. If we all strive to listen closely to conversations with others and practice our teamwork skills, we can begin to strengthen our empathy skills. Building empathy takes time and consistent practice. If we look at how Danish culture has developed, we can begin to apply more empathy to our daily lives and continue to create a more caring world.
Communication is always evolving. With the newest technologies available to us, we are modifying how we talk and understand communication. (Do we all remember the #hashtag phase? If not Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake did a comedy skit that sums it up perfectly!) One thing is true, we love to communicate with each other. If we are striving to be authentic and impeccable during this communication, we can continue to create a more caring and positive world.
Everyone has a slightly different way of thinking, and thus a different way of interpreting what is being said. If we break down the process of communication we have two parts of the brain that are performing tasks simultaneously. First we have listening and then talking. In his TedTalk neuroscientist Uri Hasson goes through a research study he helped perform. During this study, people were placed in an MRI machine to record which areas of the brain light up while being told/telling a story. What was observed was the areas of the brain that light up during these tasks and the wave patterns that are another depiction of the brains activity. At first the people that were in the MRI machines had irractive results (a.k.a. their minds were thinking about all different things). But when the story began, all of the brains synced up to display almost the same results. These results are an example of neural entrainment. “…we believe that these responses … become similar across listeners because of the meaning conveyed by the speaker, and not by words or sound. ” (Uri Hasson) Uri might be onto something when he comments that this alignment that we are seeing is vital for communication. This communication is stronger when the speaker and the listener are communicating in the same/familiar language. For example, if you have a strong grasp on English, a story told to you in English will be better comprehended verses a story told in an unfamiliar language. It is important to note that retelling a story or memory results in the same activities in the brains of the speaker and listener.Think about the warm fuzzy feeling that you get when telling someone your favorite memory.
Ok, when we both listen and talk our brains have the same activity. But what about truly understanding and the different perspectives people have? Misunderstandings happen all the time in our lives because we often understand the same occurrence in different ways. Uri had another phase in this experiment. He recounts the results on how a story is interpreted by two groups of listeners, where each group had a different framing as a preface to the story. “This one sentence before the story started was enough to make the brain responses of all the people …be very similar [within each group] in these high-order areas and different than the other group. And if one sentence is enough to make your brain similar to people that think like you and very different than people that think differently than you, think how this effect is going to be amplified in real life… that give us very different perspectives on reality.”
Click Here if you would like to watch the full TedTalk by Uri Hasson.
Be Thoughtful and Deliberate- Reaction vs Interaction
Now that we understand a bit more about the science side of talking and listening, how can we use this knowledge to be authentic with our communication? A lot of this deals with being present, thoughtful and deliberate with our words when communicating with others and yourself. (Remember, self talk is super important too!) When reading a Harvard Business Review article by Tony Schwartz and Emily Pines titled Great Leaders Are Thoughtful and Deliberate, Not Impulsive and Reactive, we come to the two-fold idea once again. The part of us that is what we are most familiar with and use day-to-day for scheduling, working, etc. This part is “…run by our pre-frontal [sic.] cortex and mediated through our parasympathetic nervous system. This is the self we prefer to present to the world. It’s calm, measured, rational, and capable of making deliberate choices.” The second part is operated by a small cluster of nuclei in the midbrain called the amygdala. The amygdala “…is mediated by our sympathetic nervous system. Our second self seizes control any time we begin to perceive threat or danger. It’s reactive, impulsive, and operates largely outside our conscious control.”
(A.K.A. the lizard brain, great for surviving an attack by a t-rex or bear, less great for current day issues like when to do the laundry or talk with our partner about an issue.) Most conflicts from triggering the ‘lizard brain’ today are a result of our self value and worth being threatened. You can feel your face get hot, muscles get tense, and breathing can become irregular at these moments. “…but the danger we experience isn’t truly life-threatening. Responding to them as if they are only make things worse.” (Tony Schwartz and Emily Pines) We can do a number of things to remain conscious of these dueling ‘selfs’ as Tony Schwartz and Emily Pines dub them. Some examples that help us check in with our brains and what they are doing/deciding are meditation, journaling, taking a breather, etc.
If this sounds familiar, you would be correct. Taking the time to self-reflect on your thoughts before speaking is a part of self-care, understanding who you are, and how you would like to conduct yourself. This takes a lot to recognise your internal experience. “You can’t change what you don’t notice, but noticing can be a powerful tool for shifting from defending our value to creating value.” Self observe or a stoic stance helps to recognise the emotions and thoughts. Then we are able to interact with the situation/problem/feeling to promote a positive outcome. One way to improve your capacity to self-observe is to begin with a strong emotion such as impatience, frustration, or anger. When you feel it arising, it’s a flashing red light that you’re sliding into the “second self”. If all you can do is just name the emotion, you have made a huge first step to being able to transform them to a positive.
Unified Caring Association has a tool that we love to use and share to help with this. We have a deck of cards and accompanying book called Moonbeam Feeling Pack. With these we can pull a card that has an emotion depicted, read the description, and then decide on what to do with that emotion. If it is a heavy or depleting emotion, we can choose the opposite lighter and renewing emotion Moonbeam identifies which we might just prefer.
What are other red flags for us? “…watch out for times when you feel you’re digging in your heels. The absolute conviction that you’re right and the compulsion to take action are both strong indicators that you‘re feeling a sense of threat and danger.” (Tony Schwartz and Emily Pines) At these times it can be helpful to ask yourself questions like, ‘Is there a different perspective here?’ or ‘What part of this is my responsibility?’ These regular inquiries on your thoughts and feelings help to offset “… your confirmation bias — the instinct to look for evidence that supports what you already believe. By always looking for your own responsibility, you’re resisting the instinct to blame others and play victim and focusing instead on what you have the greatest ability to influence — your own behavior.” (Tony Schwartz and Emily Pines) With practice these new skills will allow us to better interact with others while communication, not just react to the other person’s words. This interaction often promotes more creativity, productivity, and overall satisfaction. Know thyself can become a lasting mantra. Knowing our truth/authentic self/who we are is a core foundation to being impeccable with our words. Without our self-awareness and inner confidence we often struggle with actually knowing what to say.
What we say matters as much as how we say it.
“It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice…being kind, being compassionate, being inclusive and straight up and just being good to people is what matters.” [Dwayne Johnson]
Yes this is a quote from ‘The Rock’ and it holds a ton of truth to it. Being nice goes a long way. We are now having a better grasp on what to do, now we need to practice how to interact. There is a bit of an art to this interaction while stating your new found, productive truth. We want to stand up for ourselves while maintaining a nice and positive attitude. This is not always easy to do, especially during an argument or giving bad news to another person. Joyce E. A. Russell talks about this a bit in her article on Forbes.com titled Being Honest And Nice At Work Actually Works: “…you do have to stand up for yourself and you have to give honest feedback to people who are not doing what they should be doing, but you can still do this in a kind, compassionate, nice and firm way.” This returns us to the original idea that we should be impeccable with our words. Have you ever received a bad review at work is such a nice way that you really heard the feedback? It not only leaves you feeling motivated, but you then have a better comprehension of what you should improve.
Our brains love stories. We see through studies like Uri Hasson’s where we can map and measure how active and where the activity occurs. But the stories and words we hear often are not exactly what the speaker/teller means. It is important to be thoughtful and deliberate when speaking and listening. This helps us ensure we are fully communicating and comprehending what is being said. This takes a bit of work, but being authentic, thoughtful, and deliberate helps with our caring communication. This all builds to the belief that what we say and how we say it matters. We all want to help make the world a more caring and thriving place to live. We can do this by being impeccable with your caring words.
- Hasson, U. (2016, February). This is your brain on communication. Retrieved August 21, 2019, from https://www.ted.com/talks/uri_hasson_this_is_your_brain_on_communication
- Pines, T. S. (2019, April 18). Great Leaders Are Thoughtful and Deliberate, Not Impulsive and Reactive. Retrieved August 21, 2019, from https://hbr.org/2019/04/great-leaders-are-thoughtful-and-deliberate-not-impulsive-and-reactive
- Russell, J. E. (2019, June 25). Being Honest And Nice At Work Actually Works. Retrieved August 21, 2019, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/joyceearussell/2019/06/24/being-honest-and-nice-at-work-actually-works/#2cf744106d46