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Review by Christopher Dow
It’s rare that I’ll review a book in these pages that isn’t about a martial or movement art, but Dr. Michael D. Gershon’s The Second Brain is just too important to pass up. It does not mention chi or tai chi, or any other martial or movement art, but the basic content of the book is highly relevant to all of them.
Gershon is a research physician who specializes in the intestines, and he has earned a place in medical history by identifying serotonin as a neurotransmitter and discovering that the vast majority of serotonin is produced in the intestines—in fact, in the exact location of the tantien.
I discovered the book about ten years ago through a happy fluke. I’d been struggling to understand the mechanism of the microcosmic orbit—the principal circuit of chi flow within the body. It is composed of the body’s two major meridians: the Governing Vessel, which runs from the perineum, up the spine, and through the top of the head to the roof of the mouth, and the Conception Vessel, which starts at the tip of the tongue and runs down through the front of the body, through the tantien, to the perineum.
I felt I had a fairly decent grasp of the idea that chi is related to the body’s bioelectrical output thanks to a book by Dr. Robert O. Becker titled, The Body Electric: Electromagnetism and the Foundation of Life (review here). Becker is a research physician who was interested in the mechanism of limb regeneration exhibited by newts, salamanders, and starfish, among others. Could it be possible, he wondered, to stimulate regeneration of limbs in higher forms of life, such as humans? His research into this led him to discover a great deal that was not yet known about the importance of bioelectricity naturally generated by the body
I go more into Becker’s book elsewhere on this site, but the brunt of his research pointed to the idea that chi is, if not bioelectricity, then closely related to it. But Becker, being a researcher into nerves, concentrated on the spine and brain. These are, of course, analogous to the Governing Vessel, so I figured I had a pretty good handle on that as a principal conduit for chi. But the Conception Vessel was an entirely different matter. No spine or brain in that location. Nothing but a bunch of guts.
In fact, the actual existence of the tantien and the meridian system in general have long been debated by martial artists, chi kung practitioners, physicians, and scientists. The former two groups know from personal experience that chi is real and can be built up in the tantien and then propelled through the body, even though physicians and scientists state that there is no physiological basis for the tantien or the meridians.
So I was pretty much at loose ends for a couple of years until I noticed the headline of an article online that read something like: “Scientist Discovers Second Brain in the Gut.” I saw that headline and instantly knew what it portended. And when I read the article about Gershon's research, I was sure I was on to something. I read the book, and it confirmed my suspicions. Gershon, even if he didn’t know it, had discovered one of tai chi’s most elusive truths: the physical reality and mechanism of the tantien.
I’m not going to go much into the specific content of the book except to say that if you think you might be put off by reading three hundred pages on a series of scientific discoveries about the stomach, intestines and neurotransmitters, you also might be wrong. This isn’t some dry scientific treatise but an engaging read that’s a journey of discovery enhanced with the pacing of a whodunit. And Gershon is a pretty funny writer, making this all the more enjoyable to read.
As if the information contained isn’t interesting enough. In an age when politicians and just about everybody else spout nothing but nonsense, lies, and obfuscation to the public, it’s refreshing to follow the trail of an important scientific discovery and learn a lot of genuinely interesting and practical information along the way. You might know, for example, why politicians make you sick, but do you know why antidepressants cause nausea in the user? Gershon will tell you.
And for the practitioner of tai chi, Gershon’s discoveries have a high degree of relevance in scientifically affirming the physiological structures and functional operation of the microcosmic orbit. The information contained in his and Becker’s books enabled me to synthesize a theory of what chi is, how it is generated in the tantien, what the meridians actually are, and how chi is propelled through them, which I detail in my book, The Wellspring: An Inquiry into the Nature of Chi. I think it’s a pretty sound theory, and I have Gershon and Becker to thank for providing a scientific basis to further and bolster my ideas.
by Michael D. Gershon, M.D.
(Quill, 1998, 320 pages)