Would you take a tablet containing Beyoncé’s poo? It’s no joke – after visiting the new Gut Feelings exhibition at the Melbourne Museum, we just might be open to it. The interactive show is oozing with information about the close relationship between your gut and your mind, and we sat down with its curator Dr Johanna Simkin to discuss the power of the gut, its link with mental health and, yep – poo.
To start, can you explain how the gut and mind are linked? It’s a completely weird and foreign concept to most people, but they’re actually physically connected by this amazing thing called the ‘vagus nerve’. It runs all the way from the base of your brain, right down to your gut. It acts like this super highway for information between the brain and the gut. In fact, a lot of the signals are coming from your gut to your brain, which is always surprising for people.
Let’s get straight to it – tell us about the poo transplant part of the exhibition. My favourite part! Fecal microbiota transplants – aka ‘poo transplants’ – are an incredible research tool and a therapy being used in hospitals at the moment. The idea is, you take a poo sample that contains the microbes from a healthy person, and you put it into someone who, for example, has a bacterial infection. It allows those microbes to colonise that person to make them healthy. In animal studies, they’ve shown that putting poo from a brave mouse into a mouse with no microbes creates another brave mouse; obese poo makes an obese mouse; and stressed poo makes a stressed mouse.
That’s wild! Yes, this led us to play with some interesting ideas for the exhibition – like, in the not-too-distant future, you could use a microbe transplant like a personality transplant. You might normally be a very introverted person, but if you’re going out, you may want to be really extroverted, so you take that pill (aka a ‘crapsule’) from an extroverted person. Research has already shown it can change things, like whether you crave social interaction, or how capable you are of dealing with stressful situations. So it’s really interesting to consider where this stuff could go. You could absolutely imagine people wanting the Beyoncé pill.
Seeing as Beyonce’s poo isn’t available (yet), if people need a poo transplant, how would they choose someone as a donor? If you get to the stage where the hospitals in Victoria suggest a poo transplant, they actually ask you to recommend the donor – someone you know! They want someone who’s healthy; the person and the poo have to go through quite a lot of testing. Adelaide has its own ‘poo bank’ already. Like a blood bank, but with poo samples. There are apparently people called “super poopers” who just seem to have really effective poo.
Who would you pick as your poo donor if you could pick anyone in the world? Oh god, I wouldn’t know where to start. We did put a Beyoncé pill in the exhibition, as a bit of an Easter egg. You can totally imagine people going down the celebrity path pretty quickly. All you’d have to do is sequence the microbes of whichever celebrity you want, get some scientists to make that exact same mix, then take that pill! It’d be a great experiment to help pick apart how much of an impact microbes have on personality – I’d be a willing guinea pig!
What can we do to help improve our mental health via our gut? The take-home message is nothing crazy or new: just eat a wholefood diet and stay away from processed things. People don’t need to be afraid of carbs! Maybe throw in some fermented foods every now and again.
What’s the most interesting part of the exhibition for you? I love the gut tunnel at the start. It’s the same nine metres in length as your actual gut – it’s huge! I get to see it blow people’s minds when they see that these beautiful microbes are all over them, on them and in them. It breaks through the idea that microbes are these gross, icky things. At the exhibition, a lot of people say microbes look like little sea creatures. They really are these beautiful creatures that are doing all these amazing things to you, and all they ask in return is that you eat well. It makes you feel like you should be looking after them!