The Brain and Gut Connection; Understanding the leading gears of an organization

This article was originally published on our Medium Platform Rethinking Organizations.

We have all heard the phrase “I just have a gut feeling about it” at some point in our lives, and many of us, most probably, have used it too. There’s a vague idea in the back of our minds that the brain and the gut are somehow interconnected and that there is an unspoken link; however, this isn’t something we tend to dwell on much in our day-to-day lives.

Reflecting on this unspoken link within an organizational perspective, might we also assume that there is such a connection if we were to look at organizations as living systems?

The brain and gut connection (also known as the Gut-Brain Axis: GBA) is a long-standing mystery and has been explored from many perspectives by experts across different fields. Well-known Stanford Professor Robert Sapolsky has played a critical role in unraveling the relationship between human biology and human behavior throughout the years. Along with many of his extensive works in the field, he explores the neuroscience behind human behavior and says that today,

“Perhaps most excitingly, we are uncovering the brain basis of our behaviors. We are mapping a neurobiology of what makes us us.

Diving deeper into the subject of human biology, specifically the decision-making functions, I recently stumbled across yet another intriguing and insightful read on the Mysteries of the Brain and Gut Connection amongst the ‘TED Ideas’ article archives. To develop my perspective, I felt the need to strip back to the basics and define these organs’ functions in the simplest terms…

The Science:

The brain is arguably one of the essential organs of a living system. It is made up of billions of neurons, cells and the central nervous system, all of which tell your body how to behave. Essentially, that is where the strategy happens.

On the other hand, the function of the gut is what regulates the ‘digestion’ of the intake, in other words, indulging in every intake of the system and making sure that all resources are sent to where ever necessary.

Our biology 101 lessons may long be gone, but to recap, these two seemingly unrelated organs in a system are connected through chemicals called neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters produced in the brain control feelings and emotions. Interestingly, many of these neurotransmitters are also produced by your gut cells and the trillions of microbes living there. (Find out more on this here)

So, when you say ‘I have a gut feeling about it,’ you’re not speaking metaphorically; you’re speaking literally.

As the gut is essentially equipped with its own reflexes and senses, Michael D. Gershon, author of ‘The Second Brain,’ claims “The second brain can control gut behavior independently of the brain.” Coined as our ‘Second Brain,’ throughout the history and development of science, research has shown that the brain and gut are intricately linked and there is a constant bi-directional communication between them to fulfill both their functions and potential.

“Anything that affects the gut, always affects the brain” — Dr. Charles Major

In brief, the connection is much more than it looks.
*For the purpose of the article, I will focus on the very surface of this connection rather than the intricate details of the biological and complex systems that they truly are.

Case for an Analogy:

Having a deeper understanding of how these two organs function, I had an itch to frame my perspective on this matter from a more holistic approach by building off of my colleague Gohar’s reflection piece ‘Metabolism of Organizations’, where she asks the question, “Can we examine organizations to see what they “metabolize”?

From there, I found myself asking; If we are to say that the leading gears of the metabolism are the gut and brain, then what does that make an organization’s leading gears?

Let’s explore the idea of an organization’s leading gears;

1. The Brain:

The ‘Brain’ of an organization can be defined as the intricate circuit of wires and connections which drives the fundamental understanding, transfers, analyses, and synthesizes critical information to the relevant ‘organs’ and gives commands to the ‘mechanism’ as a whole; thus being, the strategy guided by the executives of an organization.

2. The Gut:

The ‘Gut’ of an organization, on the other hand, can be defined as the fundamental mechanism which processes all internal actions, measures the alignment and imbalance within the system, and acts as the ‘alert mechanism’ when things are ‘not in check.’ Thus it can be coded as the culture around which manifests everything related to the organization’s employees.

*We can take culture here to be the ‘cultural values’ — a metaphor for the chemical values and imbalances that the gut is responsible for measuring as a means to function the system as a whole. Therefore, If the ‘gut’ is giving you a warning sign, that means something.

In this light, if we accept the brain and gut as two critical gears that lead the system and have a bond that cannot be broken, how can we not expect that there is a similar link between the executives and employees of an organization?

As the ‘second brain’ of the system, the employees bound to the organization’s core values are just as critical to the organization as the executive level strategies, which are designed and implemented for the fully functioning, healthy system.

Let’s take a look at a more specific analogy;
if an organization’s executives are faced with disruption, it is almost an immediate fight or flight response where the brain ‘shuts down’ the digestive system so the blood can flow to its legs; or in other words, bring the ‘gut’ to a halt and cuts budget from their core resources as a reflex.

Even though the ‘gut’ as an organ is integral to the health and balance within the system, if as the ‘brain’ of an organization, you are not willing to pay attention and prioritize what the gut of your organization is telling you, along with the core values of the system that are tied so intricately, this action will inevitably kill the system… hence your organization.

Reflecting on the function of organizations as a whole, we can conclude that an organization’s ‘brain’ — an immensely complicated and intertwined system consisting of many crucial elements within itself — allows for structured and meaningful decisions that serve a core purpose. However, the cultural values and the champions who manifest those values to life are what stir the strategic decisions in the right direction and guide the system’s decision-making

As no matter how ‘correct’ your brain’s control mechanism might be, you can’t ever survive without listening and working aligned with your gut.