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Seeking Connection: Give him a hand for teaching us about the belly

As a child, I took piano lessons from a grouchy woman who hated her job.

Sitting beside me on the bench, her perpetual stance was eyes closed and jaw clenched, seemingly asking the sweet Lord for forbearance.

The one thing that broke her icy demeanor was the audible sound of cracking knuckles. If I popped my knuckles mid-practice, she would shudder and make this weird swallowing sound, forcing down the bile.

“That will ruin your hands. Pianists do not crack their knuckles,” she said.

Since she was an adult, I believed this for many years.

Until I read about Dr. Donald Unger. Unger too was told cracking his knuckles would lead to arthritis. Yet his intuition told him this wasn’t true.

So he cracked the knuckles of only his left hand twice every day for the next 50 years, estimating he cracked at least 36,500 times.

Acting as both the subject and control for his five decades-long experiment, he proved scientifically knuckle cracking does not lead to arthritic hands and won the 2009 Ig Nobel (get it?) Prize in Medicine for his efforts.

Do you listen to your gut, even when the world swears it can’t be so?

Your body is a powerful intuitive communicator.

If something doesn’t feel right for you, it probably isn’t.

Our mind can get us in trouble, pulling us this way and that, but our gut will never steer us into life’s storms.

If the breath is life’s anchor, then our intuition is the rudder.

Intuition arises from within, a bone-deep knowing that defies explanation.

Its seeming opposite is our intellect, which is rational, an understanding we attain from experience, people and books.

Then there is instinct, a primal focus on food, sex and survival.

Despite their differences, we need all three to keep our ship on course.

What I call intuition, science calls the ENS. The enteric nervous system is known as the second brain. It is the brain in the gut, and it can operate independently of the gray matter and spinal cord.

Our gut doesn’t reason or write letters or remember the lyrics to “Hey Jude,” but it contains the same neurotransmitters as our gray matter; the two share a primal connection via a network of more than 500 million neurons (or more than what’s in your spinal cord).

The vagus nerve acts like an intercom between the belly and the brain, relaying information between the two.

The ENS lets the brain upstairs know when something doesn’t feel right.

We look at a huge credit card bill and our stomach “sinks.” We see a plate of pasta carbonara, and our gut rumbles, telling the brain we are hungry. We peer over the edge of the high dive and “get butterflies.” We’re told not to crack our knuckles but the belly says, “Nah. Go for it.”

Stranger still, only about half of our intuition is actually us. Within the digestive system, the ENS is communicating with an enormous mass of microbes called the microbiome.

The microbiome is a delicate balance of about 85 percent good guys and 15 percent bad guys, around one or two pounds of bacteria in all. This bacterial colony digests our food and wards off harmful viruses. But it also regulates and produces around 30 mood neurotransmitters including serotonin, dopamine, cortisol, GABA and oxytocin.

The more balanced our microbiome, the better our mood and the more efficient our intuition. What a case for eating more greens, huh?

Children are naturally intuitive, will willingly accept the miraculous without rationalizing themselves out of the miracle. Santa Claus? The Tooth Fairy? A giant bunny that leaves me candy? Sure, sounds plausible. They know without having to know.

As we grow up, we grow out of this ability to perceive information beyond sight, sense, taste, smell and touch; it’s hard to hold onto that power in a world that values raw facts. So as we mature, we often set aside our intuition for intellect. But when we’re disconnected from our intuition, we throw our life boat to the whim of the waves.

A mindfulness practice will help hone the skills of awareness necessary to trust your gut.

The more we pay attention to our five senses, the better our sixth sense will work.

Pay attention to your energy level after being around specific people or in specific circumstances. Are you left feeling drained or energetic? This is useful information.

Queasy doesn’t just mean you ate something that didn’t agree with you. Something else in your life isn’t agreeing with you either. Don’t think too hard about this with your mind; just relax and trust what feels right.

And while you’re at it, go ahead and crack your knuckles.

Erin Smith is the owner of the OM place in Winchester, the author of “Sensible Wellness” and the online host of the OM channel. Follow her on Twitter @erinsmithauthor.