Skip to main content

Writing with brains in our hearts, writing with brains in our guts

By May 28, 2010June 2nd, 2010How To, Writing

This, I’m guessing, is not news to you: When your heart breaks, you actually feel the pain in your chest. And when you are in love, your heart swells, pounds, aches…to burst—the physical sensation is acute. And when you’re nervous or excited or you just have a ‘feeling’ about something…you actually ‘feel it’ in your gut. And while any of those (and any number of other) scenarios are happening, your head churns—analyzing, dissecting, scrutinizing, breaking it down.

This, however might be news to you: Apparently, the heart has its own independent nervous system with at least forty thousand cells that are the same as the ones found in parts of the brain. (Though I think I’ve met a few people with far less.) And the gut has a brain, known as the enteric nervous system (ENS), that lives in the lining of the esophagus, stomach, small intestine and colon.

Yes, people, we have three brains.

A few years ago, I heard a lecture about this phenomenon. And I have to say, it blew my mind a little. Because, for the most part, I’d been encouraged to think things through logically (follow your head) and not rely so much on my feelings (not your heart). I’d rarely followed that advice, mind you (I think Cancers are incapable)—but now I was I learning that the source of these irresistible, and often overpowering, feelings of the heart and the gut are actually of the brain.

And while my brain was a little taken aback by the competition and the being-put-in-its-place-ness of this information, my heart and my gut sounded off a loud, ‘ah HA!’ They knew they’d been right and worthy and valuable all along. Of course.

Using all three brains

When we write, or create in any way, we access all three points. Though some more than others, right? It’s clear to me when I’m writing primarily with my head as opposed to my heart or as opposed to my gut—I can see pretty clearly how that collaborative scale is tips. Can you?

Because they’re all necessary. In their own ways, the head, heart and gut work together to help us birth ideas and form words. Perhaps our head brain gives us organization, spelling and analysis. Our heart brain coats and stuffs our writing with feeling and consciousness. And our gut brain gives us drive and serves as a compass, pointing us in the direction we need to go.

And so it is that our readers don’t just read our words. But they feel them too. We make them cry and fume and crack up. And we guide them to motivation and change, deep realization and action.

The connector

I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but I’m very aware of how often I use the word ‘and’. I start sentences and paragraphs with it all the time, regardless of whether it’s ‘right’ or not. I pop it in often when I write here on this blog. Sometimes, my head brain wants me to simmer down and chides me for this conjunctive enthusiasm—but my heart brain tells me, passionately, that it feels right to use it and my gut brain tells me, pointedly, to go with it.

It’s how I talk, it’s how I write and, I think, it’s how I connect my three brains: head and heart and gut.

Image credit: helgasm

Join the discussion 29 Comments

  • Richard says:

    “And while my brain was a little taken aback by the competition and the being-put-in-its-place-ness of this information, my heart and my gut sounded off a loud, ‘ah HA!’ They knew they’d been right and worthy and valuable all along. Of course.”

    What a great way to start the day, reading a post that offers new knowledge, something I had never considered before, but (or should I say ‘and’) gives me an “ah HA” moment. Thank you!
    .-= Richard´s last blog ..= money = time = money = time = money = =-.

  • Tammi Kibler says:

    This is fascinating. I had never heard of additional nerve centers in the body, though like everyone else I have experienced the physical sensations.
    .-= Tammi Kibler´s last blog ..Four Mistakes Sarah Ferguson Can Teach Writers to Avoid =-.

  • Aaron Pogue says:

    You know…I did know these things, but I never made the connection. You’re always enlightening me, Julie, even when you’re teaching me stuff I already know. Kind of the opposite of high school, in a lot of ways.
    .-= Aaron Pogue´s last blog ..Why You Need to Check Out Google Wave =-.

  • Edgy Mama says:

    You’re amazing. Love you.

  • Edgy Mama says:

    And yes, I’m famous for starting paragraphs and sentences with “and.” And I’ve fought for that word on several occasions with editors. And won.

  • Dave Doolin says:

    Conjunctive enthusiasm is my new favorite word.
    .-= Dave Doolin´s last blog ..Red Shoe Blogger Follows Yellow Brick Road And Finds: No Wizard. No Oz. No Magic. No Message. =-.

  • Van says:

    I don’t have anything particularly intelligent to add, but I wanted to say that I love this post (as soon as I finished reading the article I scrolled up and read it again). I’m going to think about my “three brains” the next time I pour my heart into writing something.
    .-= Van´s last blog ..Thrift Porn: A Cozy Thrifty Home =-.

  • Leon Noone says:

    G’Day Julie,
    May i respond with three ideas.

    1. Feel free to start sentences with “and.” Over 45 years ago in “The Technique of Clear Writing” Robert Gunning recommended it, He suggested that as a basic step to improve writing clarity we should simply put a full stop before every “and” and “but.”

    2. I once heard a fascinating radio program describing radio as “the theatre of the mind.” Radio allows you to create personal images and concepts unimpeded by visual interpretation provided by a producer or director who dictates the mental images. Radio’s comprised of words. So is writing.

    3. I believe that what readers and listeners want most from reading and listening is meaning. Above all else, they want to know what the speaker or writer means. What we mean is so often a reflection of our gut and heart. We use the brain to translate how our gut and heart feel.

    So there: a breath of idiosyncrasy to start the day–at least here Down Under. What a great way to make sure you have fun.



  • Tim says:

    I would be interested indeed to hear of any evidence you may have with regard to neural substrates of consciousness within the enteric nervous system (ENS).

    The enteric nervous system is indeed considered a ‘brain’ unto itself because of its ability to operate independently of the central nervous system (CNS). That is, it possesses the neural circuitry (situated in the muscular wall) required to regulate gastrointestinal (GI) motility, secretion and local blood flow. However, there is no evidence of direct neural communication between the CNS and the ENS. Spinal afferent sensory neurons and vagal sensory neurons (which project into the CNS) detect various chemical and mechanical stimuli in the GI tract, but do not interact directly with enteric circuitry. As it stands, there are no neural pathways that would support your hypothesis.

    Furthermore, if such a mechanism existed in the case of the ENS, there would be indications from cases of vagotomy, sympathectomy, and surgical removal of GI segments – in these cases, GI/CNS connection is severed. This is not the case.

    Feeling sensation from the gut is very well supported, including cases where the sympathetic activation or stress is involved (fear, anxiety, excitement, anticipation etc.) due to its ability to modulate GI function (motility, secretion, blood flow).

    • Julie Roads says:

      Um…Tim? Are you kidding me with this? Do I look like I have any idea what you’re talking about?

      I simply heard a fascinating lecture about 5 years ago on this topic and it has stuck with me…the speaker had written a book on it. I don’t remember his name or the name of the book, but I poked around several sites when I was writing this post and found loads of supporting information.

      Anyway, I’m not a doctor or a scientist. I just know this resonates…no matter what the fancy words or folks in white coats say.

      • Tim says:

        Julie, I don’t as yet have the ability to judge a person’s knowledge from their looks. This could be a handy tool.

        The current focus of my research is the ENS. Extrinsic innervation, that is, the neurons that project into or out of the GI tract, is a specialty. I find the concept of not only direct ENS-CNS communication but indeed, ENS-based cognition, very curious given there’s no evidence of neural pathways to support such a function in a field that has been extensively studied over the past 100 years.

        When we write, our ENS does a fantastic job of regulating the digestion of our weetbix or Vegemite toast, but likely does not mediate any element of our conscious thoughts. Be thankful you don’t have to think about digestion, the ENS will do that for you so your CNS can do things you prefer – like writing blogs.

        • Julie Roads says:

          Tim – just fascinating. But are you saying that there aren’t actually these ‘brain’ cells in the gut and the heart? Because I saw pictures. Very, very interesting. Thank you for sharing all of this with us!

          Curious about how you found my blog and this post…

  • Joshua says:

    Love this!

    I’ve decided that anytime I can’t focus on something to write about I will look myself in the mirror and say something along the lines of “you have 3 brains dummy, figure something out!”

    I think it just might work.

    Also, there’s a great back and forth between Sean Connery’s character and the young male lead in a movie called Finding Forrester where the 2 characters discuss the use of And & But to start sentences. I never hesitated after that.

  • Tim says:

    Julie, there are indeed 200-600 million neurons in the human GI tract. Perhaps, the word ‘brain’ was misunderstood because, as above, the ENS is, as you’ve pointed out, considered a ‘brain-like’ system. That’s because it can receive inputs (from sensory neurons), compute and integrate the data (with interneurons), and send output to effector organs (like muscles and glands). However, it’s unlike the CNS that has a completely different range of inputs and outputs and significantly greater computing/integrative power – something that might be expected from a system with about 100 billion neurons.

    For the ENS to be involved in the kind of thinking/creating activities suggested above there would need to be substantial direct inputs and outputs to the CNS. These don’t exist, thus there’s no physiological basis for ENS-based cognition – aside data coming from the GI tract itself and minor indirect inputs (e.g. hormonal and autonomic).

    I found your blog by searching ‘enteric nervous system’ in order to fuel my capacity to avoid writing a literature review on that very subject.

    • Tim says:

      Just to make things clearer, I mentioned “there would need to be substantial direct inputs and outputs to the CNS”. Why is this? Because the CNS receives all the input for our thoughts and perception (from the eyes, ears, nose etc.) and it drives all the outputs that allow us to interact with the world (via our motor neurons that control our muscles so we can move, talk, and secrete). The ENS has none of these connections outside the GI tract – it cannot be involved in ‘thinking’ as you conceive it.

      I can’t speak for the heart’s neural systems, I don’t know enough about it. I have heard bizarre stories of transplant recipients receiving some memories of their donors – but I know of no evidence to support this :S

    • Julie Roads says:

      Hmmm….”the kind of thinking/creating activities suggested above” is just me making the connection between the fact that we have real sensory/emotional/physical sensations in our hearts and guts and the interesting fact that, as you have agreed with, there are cells found in the heart and gut that also exist in the brain.

      The monikers ‘heart brain’ and ‘gut brain’ are not meant to suggest that I think we have little brains in our hearts or our guts – that’s just my poetic license.

      Thanks again for chiming in…

  • Jed says:

    Very thought-provoking. I’m not sure which brain is producing that thought, though. Seriously, Julie, this is a valuable piece. It makes the point that Nancy’s workshop (Chilmark Writer’s Workshop) is all about. When I stay “in my head” the pieces are good, but dull. When I allow myself to listen to my gut and my heart I write pieces that even I want to read. Thanks.

  • Tim says:

    “making the connection between the fact that we have real sensory/emotional/physical sensations in our hearts and guts and the interesting fact that, as you have agreed with, there are cells found in the heart and gut that also exist in the brain”

    The ENS doesn’t give rise to conscious sensation, nor does it contain structures that confer emotion – this is fairly basic; it could probably be ‘wikipedia’d’.

    So there is ‘poetic license’ that states, I think, that nothing you say must have any relationship at all with reality so long as you suspend the audience’s disbelief. I presume then, that poetic license depends significantly on the ignorance of your audience. Points here are made that could well appear true to a lay person, and indeed to yourself if you have no background in human physiology – but are nevertheless totally false. What I’d like to understand is, what is the utility of such an exercise? The truth behind the function of the body’s neural systems are a far more inspiring and interesting story than vague notions of ‘thinking’ with your visceral organs. Given that the reality is more inspiring than poetic license – what is the utility? I am genuinely interested to understand what is going on.

  • Siddhartha says:

    Julie, I don’t know which is more interesting, your original post or this absurd conversation with Tim in the comments. I had to laugh out loud a couple times. Who is this guy anyway?

    I think you just made him up as a foil.

    @Tim, are you really this dense or are you just putting on a show? Because if you are, bravo. Socially maladjusted geek role played to the hilt.

    If not, let me break it down for you. We feel stuff in our “gut”, physical sensations. Likewise in our “heart”. These feelings communicate emotional impact often counter to what our “brains” think we should feel.

    By taking into account our non-brain inputs we often come to a more accurate conclusion than would be possible using only our brain.

    You’re a hoot.
    .-= Siddhartha´s last blog ..Nurturing Imagination in a Reality-Driven World =-.

    • Tim says:

      Siddhartha, unfortunately you misunderstand, and there’s no need to be uncivil, I’m sure you’re a big grown up; you can get by without insults. I won’t go into too much detail for this one.

      “We feel stuff in our gut” – that’s awesome (groundbreaking, no less), but guess what: it has nothing to do with the ENS. Same goes for the heart. The mention in the original post of the discrete regulatory systems these organs possess is irrelevant to sensation and indeed, irrelevant to emotions.

      “By taking into account our non-brain inputs we often come to a more accurate conclusion than would be possible using only our brain.” Whilst this statement is awful, I know that you mean that by taking into account not only our emotions, but also the sensory experience associated with the emotional response we can develop a more complete phenomenological description of a particular event. This sensory experience includes not just gut and heart but also other somatic and visceral sensations. Again, groundbreaking.

      You’re a hoot ?

  • Julie Roads says:

    Siddhartha – I SWEAR I didn’t make him up!
    Thanks for having my back…dig that about you! So glad you’re here.

  • SethJoseph says:


    An interesting read (as well as the comments). My question to you: if the head is regarded as the rational side of positioning and the heart is the emotional side, how is the gut defined in this context?

    Thanks again!

  • Andi says:

    I think it is a very talented person who can harness all three. I am very in tune with my gut, I let me guide many of my actions. My heart gets to lead sometimes, but I have to work on the brain, that is actually the one that I rely least on and in which I definitely need to exercise more!
    .-= Andi´s last blog ..Eat Pray Love and Drink winners! =-.

  • Linda says:

    Oh! Thanks! That is really interesting!
    PS. :) You need to avoid starting a sentence with “and”… It’s not stylistically correct. Some more tips on writing can be found at

    • Julie Roads says:

      Actually, that’s quite high on the Julie Roads Style Bible. But thanks for stopping by to spam my site with your links!

Leave a Reply