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Can you trust your 'gut feelings'?

Tags: Intuition

Making decisions – should I trust my 'gut feelings'?

I'll declare my bias up front and say (on a personal note) that I am a firm believer in intuition or 'gut feelings'). I rarely hear from people that it has not worked for them and that is also my own experience.

Scientifically though, intuition hasn't had a good run in the past. One report says "Intuitive processes and outcomes have been considered as inefficient mental short-cuts."

In more recent years though, science has been having a good look at intuition and its role in decision-making as well as in our mental processes in general, and to quote another report, "Intuition is now a legitimate subject of scientific inquiry". So far so good, science says it's OK.

What is intuition?

Jung defined intuition as "perception via the unconscious", seeming to indicate that intuition is not a conscious, thinking process. It could also come from just underneath the surface – what Freud called the 'Subconscious' (as opposed to the deeper levels of the unconscious).

In psychology it's commonly thought that intuition is 'condensed reasoning' or 'swift cognition' – that is the thought is so fast we don't even notice we're having it and so it seems to come out of nowhere.

Gerd Gigerenzer, author of 'Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious' argues compellingly that "what we feel in our gut is informed by our brain".

Many researchers have found that the gut has its own nervous system called the 'enteric' nervous system and it is not a big stretch to move towards the 'gut' and the 'central, or brain nervous systems being connected.

All this is very interesting, but ...

Where in our brain is intuition?

It's been suggested that intuition lives in the same part of brain as the mind or the self – and that it is in the pre-frontal cortex (the bit behind our 'third eye' or our eyebrows). Renowned researcher and author Daniel Seigel, attributes the ability of intuition to the pre-frontal cortex and says:

'Intuition can be seen as how the middle pre-frontal cortex gives us access to the wisdom of the body. This region receives information from throughout the interior of the body including the viscera – such as our heart and our intestines – and uses that input to give us a 'heartfelt sense' of what to do or a 'gut feeling' about the right choice.

Such intuition helps us make wise decisions, not just logical ones.

Studies I've found on intuition so far cover these main groups – mainly in decision making:

  • The medical profession (nurses, doctors, psychiatrists/psychologists), where intuition seems to have been found to have a significant role
  • Business/finance/leadership – where intuition seems to have been found to have a significant role in decision-making (for example buying stocks and shares)

So how reliable is it?

The general consensus is that intuition is an important element of decision-making but perhaps shouldn't be taken as the only one.

Add to your gut feeling – what evidence you have for making your decision.

What are the facts and figures, as you know them so far?

Weighing up our decision could be seen as combining what the evidence is, with what our intuition tells us.

In gambling for instance, evidence is hard to find (unless we're a card-counting genius) and 'gut feelings' about how the cards will fall may be biased by being impetuous or addictive.

As a psychologist - I sometimes just 'know' the right question to ask, or where a conversation should go, without really thinking about it. I sometimes think of this as 'Stream of consciousness' stuff – not in a literary sense but in a creative/problem-solving sense (although it also happens when I am writing, whether fiction or non-fiction). Sometimes I find myself thinking in two ways at once, from my intuitive perspective and my rational perspective – using the latter to 'edit' my creative stream.

What about you? Do you follow your 'gut feelings' – have they ever steered you wrong? I'd love to hear about your experiences. Please share.

I'll give the last word to one of the greatest minds of all time, Albert Einstein:

"I believe in intuition and inspiration. Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited whereas imagination embraces the entire world; stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research."

Albert Einstein, On Cosmic Religion and Other Opinions and Aphorisms (Goodreads)

Feel free to contact me for other references.