Visceral Reflexes and Behavior

What are “gut feelings” and what do they mean?

1939 British poster frankly reminding folks not to panic at the start of WW2

Visceral reflexes are the most ancient cognitive mechanisms present in the human body. These reflexes regulate internal processes such as digestion and the function of the liver, processes which collectively are known as Homeostasis. Optimally, life at this layer swings between digestion and absorption of nutrients and energy, growth, restoration, reproduction, and protective responses. For example, light is absorbed by a plant and then converted into sugar, which is at a later time fabricated into structures used for maintenance and growth.  These processes change through time but remain fixed in function regardless of where they occur and are therefore time, but not spatially dependent. Viewed from the perspective of the three-dimensional space they embody, they occupy a point, and can, therefore, be categorized as point patterns of the expressions of life. In humans, these point patterns are expressed in the cyclical processes of our organs, our viscera. Visceral processes cyclically change through time, independently of where the person happens to be.

Cognition and memory at this layer are genetically encoded, which we experience as primary drives, such as hunger, sexual arousal, and our freeze response. These cognitive mechanisms pre-date the emergence of vertebrates and the central nervous system and are diffused through neural nodes throughout the viscera. These nodes are collectively known as the Enteric Nervous System (ENS), also known as our second brain, which is responsible for our gut feelings. These are intrinsic stimulus/response patterns that have minimal integration with our conscious awareness. Essentially, we can somewhat consciously inhibit the expression of our drives but fail at trying to change their underlying structure. Abrupt changes in the surroundings are indicative of threat and induce a stress response, inhibiting homeostasis and inducing a contracted, protective reaction.  This reaction is commonly referred to as a Startle or Freeze response. When the triggers for startle are set too low, this protective response can remain continually active, resulting in many physical, behavioral, emotional or cognitive imbalances. (See section on Trauma below)

The visceral reflexes sense the exterior surroundings environment through the skin, specifically nerve sensors in the hair follicles. These sensors connect directly to the visceral neural network without entering the central nervous system.  Consequently, we can communicate with the visceral reflexes through therapy oriented to tactile stimulation. The perfect example of this is how a cat responds to being stroked. As the cat is soothed by the touch, it enters a deep state of rest and regeneration. Children that exhibit tactile hypersensitivity will almost certainly benefit from therapy focused on this layer. The therapy needs to be calibrated so as to not breach the threshold for a stress response. These therapies will often improve issues with hypersensitivity, allergies, digestive issues etc. (Post further discussing these relationships)

Therapeutically working with the Visceral Reflexes is perhaps the most interesting aspect of therapeutic bodywork and can be approached from many different modalities, from massage to acupuncture. For the purposes of a home program for working with this neurological layer, I am recommending the three exercises described below. The Fear Paralysis Reflex is the primary reflex we work with, using a tapping protocol. I have included Perez exercise here as it has efficacy at the Visceral Reflex Layer as well as at the Locomotor layer. The Abdominal points are another tool that is effective at enhancing ENS function. It is best to do these exercises before or to encourage, rest. With children, they are great to do at bedtime. (More information on reflex exercises can be found here)

The Enteric System does not maintain a sense of the past or future as our conscious awareness does, it functions purely in the present moment. Therefore, when we experience its activation, we connect with a stronger experience of the present moment. For example, we experience being startled long before we are consciously aware of that which has startled us, and for an instant, connect directly with now. This is perhaps why a “jump-out” in movies and scary amusement park rides are so popular. Another way we can experience the present is by being tickled. The stronger this sense of the present moment is, the less access we have to the resources to our higher level brain functions, which for a moment can be extremely pleasurable, but for an extended period of time, can become quite threatening.

Experiencing trauma recalibrates the Enteric Nervous System to a lower threshold for initiating a protective Freeze response. This threshold can become set so low that our freeze response is more or less permanently triggered. In people, these imbalances manifest in a broad array of symptoms ranging from anxiety, ADHD, and OCD to allergies and dysbiosis of the gut microbiome. When the startle response does not settle quickly, it will restrict access to our more complex protective responses such as our fight/flight mechanism. Dysfunctional behaviors related to hyperactive freeze can be viewed as the person attempting to de-sensitize the firing threshold for the freeze response. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a classic example of an expression of this intent. One of the most successful treatments for PTSD involves breaking the connection between conscious awareness and the Enteric Nervous System at the Vagus Nerve using a Botox injection, enabling conscious awareness to carry on its normal functions without being overridden by a hyperactive freeze response. (More information and video link on this study)

Therapy related to skilled tactile sensory input combined with education (Cognitive Therapy) can recalibrate the Freeze response to a higher threshold for firing. This may be a very quick process (under an hour) for minor traumatic events, to a process extended over many years or a lifetime, especially for extremely traumatizing events which occurred at a young age. However, it is likely that improved behavioral regulation will manifest within a few hours of therapy, often within the first hour, especially if the cognitive therapy groundwork has already been laid.

Visceral reflexes are the foundation of groups of increasingly complex reflex functions. Here are posts on each of these categories, descending in order of increasing complexity: