What Intuition Actually Is: The Real, Live Second Brain In Your Belly

Contrary to general belief the brain is not the only mechanism we as humans have, or use, where decision making is concerned. Although it’s unknown to the majority of us, we possess another one, and to some it’s referred to as the “Second Brain”. It may be more commonly known to the masses as intuition, a gut feeling — or a myriad of other terms — but it can be traced to the nervous system, or more specifically, the Enteric Nervous System (ENS).

This separate nervous system (the ENS) is what is, or has come to be known as the “second brain”. To get the physical technicalities out of the way, it is a long tube — AKA the alimentary canal — that begins in the throat (the esophagus) and extends all the way down to our backsides. Its walls are lined with neurons, and while its principal purpose is to control digestion, studies through the years have illustrated that it in fact plays a role in our decision making process. 

According to Michael Gershon, the chairman of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at New York–Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, an expert in the nascent field of neurogastroenterology and author of the 1998 book “The Second Brain (HarperCollins):


second brain

“The second brain doesn’t help with the great thought processes. . . religion, philosophy and poetry is left to the brain in the head.”

To summarize more simply, this second brain (the alimentary canal) will not balance your check book or solve quadratic equations on your behalf, but it can play a part in making decisions instinctively.

For instance in the 1995 US Open Final, tennis legend Pete Sampras was serving for a two-set lead against his arch rival, Andre Agassi. For the majority of the first two sets, Sampras was hitting his second serves to Agassi’s backhand, but on set point he decided to hit his second serve to Andre’s forehand – the result: an ace, and a two set lead. 

While at other times it can just be common sense, Sampras believed Agassi would be expecting him to go with his backhand side, and based on what had occurred during the match, Sampras chose to go with the opposite instead. He believed Agassi would not be expecting it — and he wasn’t — but why? That decision Sampras came to was based on information that he had procured, whether consciously or subconsciously. He had no way of knowing what Agassi was thinking or which way he would go, but his intuition told him to go to the forehand– that “gut” feeling. These are things all of us do throughout the course of our lives, often without even realizing it.


gutsy-move

“Since the enteric nervous system can function on its own, it must be considered possible that the brain in the bowel may also have its own psychoneuroses. That new concept, simplistic as it may be, is likely to turn out to be as revolutionary and hopeful as Copernicus’s discoveries.” ~ Michael Gershon, The Second Brain







Another example from the sports world is a moment during what has been called the “most amazing, single most significant ride in surfing history” when Laird Hamilton cut one of the most ferocious waves of all time, at Teahupoo in Tahiti.

When in a situation like that, it’s reasonable to assume that the brain in the head has taken a backseat to its lower cousin, and in this case, may have been wholly responsible for Hamilton’s survival. In this quote from the video of the ride which you can watch here, one of the commentators puts it this way:


laird hamilton big wave

“Normally surfers are dragging [their front] hand along the face. Laird had to drag his right — his back hand — on the opposite side of his board to keep himself from getting sucked up in the hydraulic. In the middle of that maelstrom, how did his mind say ‘this is what I have to do’? Nobody had ever riden as Laird rode on that wave before, and so it was the imagination of dealing with that unimaginable energy and coming up with the plan spontaneously. He couldn’t practice…”


Yet the functions of the second brain may encompass more than just such moments of raw athletic intuition. While there is no specific scientific measurement yet for how intuition can be felt — and relied upon — in personal relationships, it remains inherently a human function.

How can we tell if someone is telling us the truth without actually having firsthand knowledge of the subject at hand? Sometimes the facts, whether logical or scientific, can aid us in arriving at a conclusion, but when that isn’t readily available our intuition kicks in. As so many of the common questions run through our minds…


  • Does what they are saying make sense?
  • Is it plausible?
  • What is the credibility level of this person?

. . .the answers we come to may just arrive through an avenue other than logic. These are the things that can be attributed to our gut — a feeling, human instinct which can be, whether consciously or subconsciously, derived from our alimentary canal. Sometimes we are aware of it and other times we are not. It’s almost like a second brain. Well, actually, it is… somewhat. It’s just that long tube inside us stretching from our throat to our… well, you know.

About The Author

This is an original article from freelance writer George Kipling.