Purple Magazine
— The Brain Issue #33

the second brain

FOOD

text by BRUNO VERJUS 

bruno is a food writer, french chef, and the owner of the exclusive restaurant called table in the 12th arondissement of paris

In my teenage reading years came the Alexandre Dumas period. A true giant, that one. His Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine still throws me for a loop. That monumental work, that temple of taste, combines food for the body with food for the mind. As Dumas understood before anyone else, the belly is our second brain, and historically the first. Reading him, we concede that the stomach is our first brain, that the original brain is indeed the belly. Common sense tells us so. Anxious people get a knot in their belly, and lovers butterflies in their stomach. At times we make decisions by following our gut — with fear in our belly.

Science has passed down its ruling. We do indeed possess two brains. A central nervous system for the brain up top coupled with an enteric nervous system for the brain down below. Pause for a little anatomy, and we observe troubling parallels, even mimesis, in the resemblance between our cerebral circumvolutions and the organization of our digestive system.

To return to science, the work of Dr. Michael D. Gershon, a researcher at Columbia University in New York City, has for a few years now presented the intestine as a veritable second brain. The enteric brain is a form of intelligence boasting some 200 million interconnected neurons, branching out over the whole of our digestive system. It contains as many neurons as the cortex of a pet dog, for example.

Gershon sees the belly as an organ of paramount importance. Our health’s mainline of life and energy. “The neurons that line the walls of the intestine and digestive tract enable us to digest, and digestion is immensely complex. Food must be broken down into miniscule molecules that the body can absorb and use for its functions, and this requires great neuronal power. Over the course of our evolution, the brain has sort of shifted elsewhere. It was quite simply more efficient to shift the brain to the periphery. That way there’d be no need for giant cables to connect the brain to the digestive system and expand the central nervous system by several million supplemental neurons.”

Michel Neunlist, head of TENS — The Enteric Nervous System in Gut and Brain Disorders, a joint research unit of France’s National Institute of Health and Medical Research and the University of Nantes — considers the notion of a second brain to be obsolete, for the second brain is historically the first. Neunlist derives his thinking from the example of primitive multicellular organisms made up entirely of a digestive tract. He thereby confirms that it was within such a tract that the enteric nervous system — the first nervous system ever — developed.

Engage in naval gazing to better penetrate the secrets of the enteric brain. Go back to the start of it all: the umbilical cord as the developmental center for the coordination of the body. The energies radiating from the umbilicus lead us to a form of the world’s origin: one connected with the universe.

Want proof? Look no further than our inner ecosystem of microscopic bacteria: the intestinal flora now called microbiota. A collection of microorganisms — bacteria, microfungi, protists, viruses living in our digestive system. More bacterial than human? It’s possible, for we are a veritable vehicle for bacteria. We maintain, sui generis, an original relation with the “alien.” Our body contains more bacterial than human cells, and therefore more alien than human DNA.

According to Stephen Collins, a gastroenterologist and researcher in Canada: “Each of us is carrying about two kilos of bacteria, which generate 30% of our calories. They help us to digest what hasn’t been digested and especially to determine what’s toxic and what isn’t. Since the dawn of man, bacteria have been educating our immune system and constituting a personal signature.” We are indeed alien to ourselves!

We maintain a holistic relation to the universe. This awareness, well known in traditional Chinese medicine, and founded on vital energies, is called our chi: the human body as the universe writ small. In keeping with this, Chinese food revolves around the notions of cold and hot, as if to provide apt sustenance — in their respective qualities — to the two brains. Keep a cool head and a warm body.

At Table, my restaurant in Paris, I keep those two worlds in mind as I work. My cuisine keeps the two brains in close proximity through steady dialogue. For me, it’s a matter of making sure to feed the emotions (the limbic zones of the brain) while respecting the energies provided by the ingredients and thereby stimulating the digestive, enteric zones. Feed well and take good care of body and soul;
feed up, and down below.

END

[Table of contents]

The Brain Issue #33

Table of contents

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