With a unique combination of researcher, doctor, and Buddhist practitioner, Dr. Emeran Mayer has been leading the movement to “bring the brain back into medicine” for the past 40 years. His work at the David Geffen School of Medicine has illumined the mysterious connection between the mind and the gut, which Mayer understands to be the body's "second brain". “The gut contains wisdom,” Mayer says, and we’d do well to pay attention to it.
In his best-selling book, The Mind-Gut Connection: How the Astonishing Dialogue Taking Place in Our Bodies Impacts Health, Weight, and Mood, Mayer explains how microbes in the human gut outnumber human cells 10:1. Imagine a world of darkness, nearly void of oxygen, where 100 trillion microbe inhabitants have been learning the art of peaceful coexistence and perfecting the science of wordless communication for billions of years. This is the mysterious ecosystem of the gut. So when the brain sends signals to the gut and the gut sends signals to the brain in a two-way conversation, occurring 24-7 and even when we’re sleeping, this micro-ecosystem—influenced by what we eat, drink, think, feel, and inherit—functions as the most sophisticated information gathering organ in our bodies. It influences our overall health, moods, appetites, and personalities.
Mayer grew up in the Bavarian Alps in a line of four generations of German confectionery storeowners. Until he was 17, he worked in the family business and made pastries and cakes for all sorts of occasions. He recounts: ”I started to associate the sweet aromas of chocolate and vanilla and other ingredients with the seasons and the major holidays, without conscious awareness that I was laying the blueprints for my future career studying the complex interactions between food, the mind, and the gut.”
When it was time for Mayer to go to college, he agonized over the decision to follow in the family tradition or pursue other interests. Pro-and-con lists proving futile, he chose to follow his “gut feeling.” He studied science at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich and went on to Ludwig Maximilian University Medical School. Upon graduating, Mayer followed his passion in documentary filmmaking and traveled the world to study and film native healers in the Yanoama tribes of the Amazon rainforest and the Asmat people in current-day Papua New Guinea in Indonesia. Across cultures, he explored his interest in the gut-brain connection.
At UCLA, Mayer runs the G. Oppenheimer Center for Neurobiology of Stress and Resilience and co-directs the Digestive Diseases Research Center (CURE). He has published more than 370 scientific papers, co-edited 3 scientific books, and received numerous awards, including the 2016 David McLean Award from the American Psychosomatic Society. His current research focuses on the role of brain-gut interactions in Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, autism, obesity, and inflammatory bowel disease.
Mayer co-produced the award-winning documentary “In Search of Balance,” an exploration of a new paradigm of health, science, and medicine, based on the interconnections between us and Nature. He is currently working on a new documentary, “Interconnected Planet,” and a forthcoming book, The Gut-Immune Connection.
In addition to his intellectual pursuits, Mayer is a deep student of Buddhism. He was a member of the UCLA Zen Center for several years, and he and his wife were married by Choekyi Nyima Rinpoche in a Tibetan monastery in Kathmandu. He has also practiced other mind-based strategies like Ericksonian hypnosis and autogenic training, a relaxation-desensitization technique.
Please join Andrew Kim and Cynthia Li in conversation with this pioneering doctor, scientist, and teacher.