In truth, the human body does not entirely consist of human cells alone. We are hosts to an entire universe of other organisms that inhabit our skin, mouth, nasal, and intestinal tracts. These microbes are collectively called “microbiota” and, unlike viruses and other bacteria, they are a natural and essential part of our metabolism and health.
Microbiota and nervous system
Our busy microbiota can indirectly interact with and influence the entire nervous system by producing incredible molecules that act as local neurotransmitters. These can be compounds such as serotonin, melatonin, histamine, or short-chain fatty acids such as butyric acid.
The stimulation of the enteric neurones by these compounds can have a direct impact on our central nervous system, brain function, and ultimately psychological well-being. A healthy microbiome is, therefore, important for overall physical and mental health, and balance.
If the microbiome is deficient in key regard, either due to environmental factors, poor diet, or overuse of antibiotics, then the production of these molecules may be abnormally increased or suppressed. Ultimately, this can affect our well-being beyond general health and into psychological conditions such as anxiety and depression.
Wellness and decision-making
On a daily basis, we tend to ignore this connection, and for the most part, human civilisation didn’t even know it existed. We do not consciously believe that our thoughts, emotions, and ideas may be directly influenced by chemical neurotransmitters, created by a vast universe of alien species of micro-organisms that live in their trillions in our colon, but it may well be the reality.
If the microbiome is powerful enough to have a statistically significant impact on our cognitive abilities to increase the incidences of autism in children, and hamper our interaction with society, what other impacts can these organisms indirectly have on our everyday and critical decision-making ability? This is absolutely critical to the concept of idea selection and, therefore, the ability of our species to make the right choices.
Anxiety and decision-making
When presented with internal or external ideas, humans need to make an active decision to ignore, follow, or reject them using our in-built mental algorithms. Researchers from Harvard University have identified a clear link between our emotional psychological state and the quality of our decision-making ability. Their work reviewed over 35years worth of independent scientific research and literature, and clearly supports the notion that our emotions constitute “powerful, pervasive, and predictable drivers of our decision-making.”
People who feel anxious, tend to make more risk-averse decisions, and those that feel grateful tend to make more generous ones. Anger can lead people to make decisions that they perceive will enable them to take active control, while sadness can result in selecting a path that is passive and accepting fate.
There are many internal and external factors that influence our emotions, but new facts are emerging that indicate that the microbiota living and breeding within our bowels are impacting our psychology in measurable ways. In 2018, scientists from the University of Graz in Austria studied the effects of people consuming probiotics on emotional brain signatures after four weeks of consumption.
Effects of probiotics consumption
Probiotics are natural bacteria that can be safely consumed by humans which promote the healthy growth of species in the microbiome. These bacteria first need to survive the treacherous journey through the acidity of the stomach, traverse the twenty-two feet of the small intestines, to finally reach the microbiome living and growing in the lower intestine.
The results indicated a win for the mighty microbiota. People who were taking probiotics behaved significantly less risk-averse when making decisions and displayed less depression and vulnerability when measured on behavioural questionnaires. Moreover, this was not just a perception from the subjects, as they recorded their feelings and judgements, it was mirrored in the MRI data as well.
This revealed that their minds were now processing information very differently in areas of the brain traditionally involved in emotional decision-making and emotional memory processing. What this indicates is that the microbiome may be directly influencing what emotions we feel, and physically changing how the brain processes these emotions and ultimately, how we make decisions.
If there ever was truly a time in history when we needed a close partnership with the microscopic species that make up our beautifully evolved microbiome, it is now. Arguably, we are, however, passively engineering a society that promotes the very opposite, partly in ignorance and partly from hubris. Believing we are a dominant solo species, when we are actually hosting a community of species, is an illusion of scale.
Perhaps our species didn’t conquer the planet, split the atom, and write Bohemian Rhapsody totally alone. Microbiota is an essential evolutionary partner to the human race that should never be taken for granted.
They have uniquely helped our growth, wellness, mental health and creativity. We must nurture them so we can be at a peak mental condition to chart the ideas that will determine our future.
Matthew Godfrey Matthew is a multi-award-winning entrepreneur and CEO. He has published his first non-fictional book, The Insanity of Ideas.