The Neuroscience Of Trusting Your Gut

Why should you trust your gut? Because science says it's the foundation of rational decision making.

Say what you will about George W. Bush's style, but you can't fault him for having an overly brain-based conception of how to make decisions. As Stephen Colbert famously said, our 43rd president thought straight from the gut. What's weird is that more and more research shows that gut-thinking is a good idea.

George W. Bush, Stephen Colbert, and the Wisdom of the Gut

Getting to know your gut feelings

Antonio Damasio is a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California and head of the Brain and Creativity Institute. His research concerns how rationality, emotion, and our physical bodies are all intertwined in the way we make decisions.

Rather than being opposed, emotion and reason are deeply interrelated: if you're going to make sound and rational decisions, he contends, you need to have first done prior accurate emotional processing. If you have done such processing, then your emotions accelerate your decision-making—in the form of intuitions, hunches, and gut feelings.

A hunch is a somatic marker: a physiological clue of what to do next. When you're anxious, you might feel tense in your back, when you're content, your shoulders and your hips might relax accordingly. So when you're making a call about a future decision, these physical sensations guide (or bias) you toward or away from certain actions.

In a review of Damasio's The Feeling of What Happens, British psychologist Bruce Charlton gives us a visceral example:

Imagine that you're walking alone down a street one night when you see somebody that looks like they might mug you. When you spot them, your brain quickly makes predictions using perceptual information from the outside world (the identity of the scary dude) and internal emotional information (the fear you feel in response). That combination of information then gets served up to your in a physical sensation: that feeling in your gut that you need to get the hell outta there.

By attending to these feelings we get quicker with our decisions.

Antonio Damasio: Your emotions are part of your reason

Damasio says it's our gut feelings—that rapid-fire conjuring of future emotional states—that help us tip our decision-making in one direction or other.

"You don't just remember facts, whether the outcome was good or bad, but you remember whether what we felt was good or bad," he says. "That tandem of fact and associated emotion is critical: what we construct as wisdom over time is actually the result of cultivating that knowledge of how our emotions behaved and what we learn from them."

Hat tip: Harvard Business Review

[Spark: Yellowj via Shutterstock]

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10 Comments

  • Jeff

    I am not saying this is the "end-all" article to proclaim victory of any topical issues that may relate. However, Drake, I appreciate the article in that there is certainly reason backing our intuition. I think people with a high EQ equate their intuition with the "Vegas House." The reality is, there are thousands of decisions on a daily basis one must make -- how can you possibly choose? If you have the discipline to take the house every single time, in the long run you end up on top (though you may anger a few others along the way).

    You lose some along the way, but how else can you possibly play your cards?

    Happy for any debate. Thanks Drake.

  • Andrew

    Thanks for writing on such an interesting issue.

    I think this piece gets at some good points, but it presents an overly simplified view of intuition. It would help to clarify the line between gut-feeling decisions informed by past experiences and outcomes (good intuition), and visceral decision-making made without the aid of facts (bad intuition or bias). From an evolutionary perspective, intuition has probably been good for our species. But we now live in an unbelievably complex world where data - rather than biological triggers - should conduct many of our actions. The instincts we developed millennia ago weren't designed to help us navigate the complicated choices we face in business and personal life in the modern world. For example, plenty of people have gut reactions and intuitions that dissuade them from flying. But statistically, it's one of the safest ways to travel. It probably doesn't make sense to trust purely our emotions in cases where we're wrestling with modern decisions.

    I think the article tries to make this point, but I don't think the line between intuition and bias was made clear enough.

  • Susan Giurleo

    Well, this is also the basis of racism if one extrapolates from your example of thinking someone might mug you. Our gut always says what's different is a threat. It goes back to our evolutionary roots. This line of reasoning is why being creative and innovative is perceived as "risky." Sometimes it's smart to consciously override our gut feelings. Sure, they are informative, but higher order thinking has to play a role in many cases. Otherwise, why have a judicial systems and laws that counteract "gut reactions?"

  • truth

    Racism? Well..when 80% of violent crimes are committed by certain groups I'd say its more than racism. Our gut doesn't always fear what is different it is color blind and going by past experiences and knowledge.

  • Padma Drago

    I think the good doctors are missing the point, by referring to data coming in through the five senses only, neglecting the very subtle extrasensory perceptions that come into our neurosystem via quantum mechanics.

    "The brain exhibits photon emission, and where there is photon emission, there is quantum entanglement." -Dr. Michael Persinger in No More Secrets.

    The emerging field of quantum biology is exploring biology's use of quantum phenomena, and it seems quite ubiquitous, from the sense of smell to avian navigation systems. It is no far stretch to suggest that the brain is able to make use of quantum phenomena to receive extrasensory data from those with whom it has been entangled by association. (A mother is more likely to wake up in the night when her child has been in an automobile accident than someone she does not know, because her continuum has been entangled deeply with that of her son.)

    The emerging field of quantum computing, and the soon-to-come field of wetware quantum computing will demonstrate irrefutably that such tele-communication is possible. We will must evaluate whether we are using our personal wetware quantum computers at their optimal efficiency. (Perhaps switching the OS programming might allow them to work better.)

    Persinger his research into telepathy at the CIA, concluding that telepathic communication works better when both brains, particularly a certain area, are resonating at 7.83 Hz (natural Earth frequency). During solar storms or near artificial EMFs, such abilities are inhibited.

  • Anthony Reardon

    Pretty good. A somatic marker is not necessarily an emotional process though. Just because you are not engaging a rational mental construction, the precursor may be more a matter of conditioning - more mechanical in nature - and what follows could be emotional or cognitive reaction.

    For example, if you have thought in depth about some field that you worked in for years, you may be able to process and react to information you are presented without thinking. This can be very accurate even when you are faced with entirely new situations where you do not necessarily know the right answer or move. However, just because the order of this operation is not engaging rationality does not mean it is an emotional process.

    What can happen though is emotional responses can be more dramatic when somatic markers are fired. Emotions are a more primal physiological phenomena, quite often tied into your wiring. A more robust emotional reaction can occur when a given array is signaling, and that effect can have a lot to do with bypassing the path for higher order processing- a serious evolutionary advantage for quick reaction, long-term memory, and applied learning.

    When you talk about emotions from a brain standpoint, you might even say their function has more to do with weighting synaptic configurations and not the other way around- what you might feel when presented with the same stimulus may be more of an emotional byproduct your brain start pumping out into your blood stream, and this may or may not be in your advantage to act on at face value. You might, for example, notice the overwhelming reaction causing you to tremble, and instead of letting it continue to shut you down, make a conscious decision to shut it down.

    One of Darwin's students put it down as actually having 11 competing instincts within a human brain- the same kind of instincts found throughout the biosphere, but probably in not as complex an arrangement in most cases. Also ref the idea of hierarchy of needs. You might miss the key stuff by trying to simplify it down to opposing emotion and rationality...or left brain/ right brain for that matter.

    The applications of this science are awesome though. You can even apply it to designing online "experience".

    Best, Anthony

  • JP

    Integrating our emotional and intellectual perceptions of the world makes sense. A nagging somatic anxiety may indeed be an indicator that something is awry with our intellectual perception of a situation. Conversely, however, we need to be able to use our brains to second guess our gut instincts. George Zimmerman seems to have had a gut instinct that Trayvon Williams was a 'scary dude' but that led him to a horrible and irrational action. Wise action results from a balance of head and heart (or gut, if you prefer), rather than relying on just one of them alone.