A Brain in the Belly

For many centuries, martial artists, monks and scholars have devoted special practice to concentrating not only their breathing but their intent on the area of the lower stomach. This section has influenced much of Asian culture, so that many expressions use the term “belly” as westerners might use the word “head.” And lo, we find that, indeed, there is a brain in the belly as well as the head. It is a different kind of brain, one of neurological connections without a discreet shape, more of a net than a boulder. This net of neurons lines the gastrointestinal tract and, seen as a whole, gives so much credence to the idea of a separate brain that we have created a new branch of medicine called neurogastroenterology.

art_belly1The practices centered around the Tan Tian, Chi Hai, Hara and Koshi are all attempts to find and nourish this second brain, this yin brain. In martial arts we approach this study with real concern. Cultivation of this area can be a daunting job, such as standing practice, because the cranial brain continually “interprets” the information of the lower brain, categorizing it and, almost immediately, filing it in a convenient cubbyhole where it deteriorates into mere “information.” We could even call this frustrating tendency a reflection of the Yin/Yang profile of the situation. After all, the neural connections divide essentially into the upward (Yin) sensory ones and downward (Yang) motor and regulatory ones following perfectly the classic exchanges in these polarities.

art_belly2There is so much to learn and this lack of information has marginalized the function and findings of this belly brain. In school, I learned that the autonomic system was divided into sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. But the original work of Johannis Langley has three systems, including the enteric, ignored and eventually just plain removed from the equation. Only recently has it been re-introduced to the arena, but the vast majority of research and experimentation is centered on the need to cure gastrointestinal problems not contribute new concepts. This is too bad because even those who consider the “little brain” to have nothing to do with cognition still admit that there is no evolutionary reason for its complexity, and there is obviously much more that we can learn. For instance, the vagus nerve is the communicating channel between the two brains. But researchers have been surprised to learn that 90% of the information goes from the Yin brain to the Big Brain, not the other way around. In fact the belly brain is so sophisticated that the vagus nerve can actually be severed and the belly brain can continue functioning all on its own.

art_belly4Am I saying that this belly brain is now proven by science to exist, and exactly correlates to what we imagine it to be in our Kung Fu and Qigong practices? No, of course not. Science takes its own path. I disagree with those people who, the moment a new discovery is made, scientifically stretch its meaning to include whatever fits their own predilections. I understand this tendency but it causes problems when the evidence reverses or leads to a different path, as if often does. What, then? Do you dump your beliefs? You have to set a standard for belief. pro or con.

However, this belly brain certainly validates in aspects some parts of what we feel when we practice. The type of information this neurological net makes available to us is essentially independent from the product of higher mental functioning. It may be mostly responsible for feelings, some perceptions, and—almost by definition—undefined reactions and visions. In other words, sensitivity; but not a passive art_belly6sensitivity. Rather it is a sensitivity that reaches out like radar encompassing and ensnaring worldly experience. This is the point George Xu made in a recently viewed lecture. One aspect of martial training that is different from so many other methods lies in the simultaneous development of both sensitivity and activity as co-workers in the martial process. Martial arts, at core, is not just a means of converting your body into a hammer. It has wider implications that, if you trust only the hammer analogy, leaves you ghettoized in a skill that —unless it is your occupation—gives you little for all the wider challenges of life.

This point is brought up in the first really significant book written by a European entitled: Hara. Here the author, Dürckheim, starts with the physical but slowly and methodically shows that its application permeates the Japanese sensibility giving it a unique depth and subtlety. This is an experience that you must participate in to realize.

Note: This is, of course, a complex subject and there are scientists who definitely would not categorize this “little brain” this way. Others would, but are highly reserved about its function. This other group’ perfectly respectable, seem ready to develop methods and theories based on this “other brain.” At this point, the best approach would be, as Hillman says, to “entertain an idea.”

3 Responses to “A Brain in the Belly”

  1. Jeff says:

    Curious. Most curious. I have long had a suspicion that there was a second brain in the gut. I imagined it as the result of an ancient symbiosis. Long ago, there were two entities, probably a single-cell creature and a very primitive though more advanced life form. The more advanced one had bilateral symmetry and obtained nutrients through respiration and some form of photosynthesis, the single cell creature was not symmetrical and obtained nutrients by consuming and digesting matter. At some point, they joined and formed a single, more efficient being. The single-cell creature received the benefit of oxygenination to improve its functioning, while the respiring creature gained the benefit of no longer having to manufacture its own energy.

    My abdominal brain and I have an ongoing love-hate relationship, to be sure.

  2. J. Andrews says:

    What a fascinating concept! I was familiar with the “2 brains” of the huge dinosaurs, but it never occurred to me to think of this nerve network as a significant source of information. I always thought of the tan tien as the correct center of gravity, and as standing practice as either a source of self-discipline or of calming and simplifying. I hadn’t taken it to the next step of actually listening for what my “gut” might be telling to me.

    I was startled to think of a “brain” as Yin, as subtle, sensitive. My relationship to Yin has been strained in my adult life. Whereas I deeply believe in its importance, especially in our American life, I find that I fight it in myself. Not sure why. Perhaps out of confusion, which this article helps dissolve.

    I also appreciate the hint of martial training’s complement to general life skills—like going to college through the body rather than through the cranial brain.

    Reading this essay has generated a lot of questions and probing. Thanks.

  3. Gordon Cooper says:

    The “Abdominal Brain” was a standard feature of esoteric and mainstream Physical Culture training in the West from the 1870’s-~1950 before it was replaced by either “scientific” physiological explanations or yogic concepts.

    About third of the exercises found in standard PC and spiritualist or magnetic healing works involve cultivation of the sensitivity and discernment of this “organ”.

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