Every time I have made a bad decision—particularly in a work setting—I have always had a gut feeling that—just maybe—I might be making a bad decision. When that nagging feeling in my stomach turned out to be right, I always wished I had paid more attention to it.
Medical science agrees with me—the doubting me, not the taking-action-anyway me.
The reason my (and your) tummy gets a funny feeling in times of anxiety is because the gut has its own brain of sorts. Not the kind that can write a clever and informative blog post(!), but one that is powerful enough to act entirely on its own, as well as to exchange signals with the brain making all the decisions.
A steadily-advancing field of biomedical research called neurogastroenterology is studying these interactions between the “gut brain” and the “head brain.”. Among the field’s most prominent leaders are Dr. Michael Gershon of Columbia Medical Center and Dr. Jay Pasricha from Johns Hopkins Medicine.
The belly brain is called the enteric nervous system(“ENS”), and it is made up of a network of neurons, proteins, hormones, and chemicals all interacting in the stomach, esophagus, small intestine and rectum. Composed of more neurons than the central nervous system, the ENS acts independently—without receiving instructions from the brain—to digest food and rid the body of waste as well as to recognize and reject poison.
This fundamental survival function is at the core of the “fight or flight” stress response.
The powerful hormone serotonin is also shared between the two brains.
Too little serotonin in the head’s brain leads to depression; too much serotonin in the gut brain, researchers are finding, may play a role in gastrointestinal disorders, including irritable bowel syndrome.
So when you get a quiver in your belly that isn’t hunger and it’s happening when something may not be going exactly right, this whole complex interactive system may be telling you to take a moment and pay attention.
Ask your belly brain some questions
The instinct to push doubt aside, I think, may be particularly acute among us as communications professionals. Driven by creativity and imagination, we are more likely to listen to emotion over logic—letting our bright shiny creative impulses gain the upper hand over dull logic and reason.
In the wild, an animal gets an acute feeling of anxiety and instinctively knows that even if he can’t see the predator stalking him, he needs to run. In the workplace, we usually have a little more time to ask questions before we crash through the door: “What’s the worst that can happen?” “Who might react in a way that is unexpected?” “What could I not know that I might need to know?”
I recall a couple distinct times I didn’t listen to my belly brain:
- Publishing a photo in our campaign newsletter of two major donors taken at an event that I thought was more interesting than the same one we always used of them.
- What could possibly go wrong? This couple hated having their picture taken and the one photo our images editor had of them that we always used—the one I thought was boring—had been painstakingly vetted by my predecessor. They were not happy I strayed from the norm.
- Being so excited to integrate an edgy theme into our fundraising marketing materials I overlooked the fundamentals.
- What didn’t I know that I needed to know? Two donors with the president’s ear were less than enthralled with the contemporary, modern, hip marketing campaign and believed that development should steer clear of trends and stick to the core message. That project was squashed.
In each instance, all parties involved reached agreeable compromises that actually turned out to be ideal solutions. The donors whose lively photo I published came to see that showing the fun relaxed side of themselves could complement their more serious personas. (But my team and I also instituted a more rigorous approval policy moving forward for the images we used. )
For the hip marketing campaign, we all eventually arrived at a messaging hierarchy that allowed us to reflect a cooler image that appealed to our younger donor base while keeping intact some of the fundamental elements of our core message that our older generations felt connected to.
Most importantly, what I and my team learned from these experiences is that had we stopped and asked ourselves a fuller set of questions first—listened more closely to our guts—we could have considered more carefully these other perspectives and developed more mutually agreeable solutions early on—even if they seemed less exciting to us.
The doubts are real…they need real attention
Science is leading the way on this. When you feel doubt or a fluttery uneasiness in your gut as you are rolling forward full speed ahead, take a moment to stop and ask your gut some questions. The answers may be enlightening.