Gut Brain : Blog by performance psychologist Mike Duckett

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 11th April 2018

Performance psychologist, Mike Duckett talks about the concept of gut brain and if chefs are really neuropsychologists?

Are you out of your mind!?  If you’re not, and you are ‘in’ it, where is it (your mind that is)? Is it in your brain or somewhere else in your body?

food image
Food evokes all senses

I know this is a deep philosophical question that has entertained famous thinkers for centuries; most notably Rene Descartes (he of “I think therefore I am” fame), who decided the mind and the body were two entirely separate things. However, I promise you this stuff has some relevance to you as a chef!

Gut Brain

If you had limited space in the restaurant and would like people to only bring those bits of themselves that they needed to enjoy your food, would you invite only their stomachs? Obviously not; we know that taste and flavour are different, with flavour being determined by emotional experience and memory - so you’d better invite their minds too.

In his book, ‘Intelligence In The Flesh’, Professor Guy Claxton tells us that Descartes’ notion is out of date and our minds are intimately connected with our bodies, in fact, we think with our whole body. You may have heard of the ‘gut-brain axis’, which refers to the fact that our whole digestive tract contains millions of nerves that can relay information to and from the brain but can also act independently.

Enteric Nervous System

The same sort of nerves that make up your diner’s brain and spinal cord are found all over their gut and form a nervous system known as the Enteric Nervous System (ENS), which uses the same neurotransmitters as the brain – e.g. dopamine

and serotonin. The earliest known role of this nervous system was to control digestion and to recognise threats from ingested viruses and bacteria so that defences such as diarrhoea can be triggered. The ENS is also connected directly to the brain via the vagus nerve so that a signal can be sent and a decision made by the brain to start vomiting too.

people eating food
How are your customers enjoying
their dining experience?

So far this is pretty basic stuff, vaguely related to your customer’s dining experience but the more neuroscientists discover about the ENS the more we learn that it is intimately involved in the way your diner is thinking and feeling as they sit there.

You must have heard yourself say at some point, “my gut is telling me not do x”, perhaps referring to an intuition you have about a decision you’re trying to make. Now we know the second nervous system, your ENS, actually IS telling you something. Those gut reactions are part of the decision-making process your mind is using. Recently we’ve moved away from thinking of the relationship between the brain and the body as like a CEO (the brain) receiving signals and giving out top-down commands. I heard someone describe the brain as more like a common room where all parts of the body get together to decide how best to make sense of all the different bits of information coming in.

The correlation between your gut and your brain

There have been some interesting experiments to test if what's happening in the gut has a direct influence on what's happening in the brain – it does. For example, in one experiment, people had either fatty acids or saline introduced into their stomachs and were then given brain scans and asked about their mood after being shown sad pictures and listening to sad music. Those with fatty acid in the gut felt less sad and showed fewer signs of sadness than those given saline.

A final interesting fact about the vagus nerve is that stimulating this nerve has been shown to help lift depression in some patients. This is probably connected to the fact that this pathway brings about feelings of calm, warmth and bonding. As many chefs I work with tell me that they are really in the business of encouraging pleasurable emotional experiences for their customers, maybe your job is to stimulate all the senses, including the vagus nerve?

If so, I wonder if chefs are really a specialised kind of neuropsychologist?

Mike Duckett
Mike Duckett

Mike Duckett has a degree in psychology and is a member of the Occupational Psychology division, the Sports Psychology division & the Coaching Psychology Special Group of the British Psychological Society. He holds a diploma in Hypnotherapy & Cognitive therapy and is a certified NLP coach.

With over 20 years experience he was one of the pioneers of applying performance psychology to coach people in the hospitality industry to get the best from themselves, in areas such as creativity; leadership; optimism etc.

As a certified NLP Coach and ANLP Accredited Master Practitioner, Mike has clients ranging from world-renowned chefs, restaurateurs & sommeliers to up and coming staff in both the kitchen and front of house. You can see more of Mike's blogs

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 11th April 2018

Gut Brain : Blog by performance psychologist Mike Duckett