Brain’s Secret Weapon: Gut Feeling

Gut vs. Brain

I have been fascinated with this strange sixth-sense feeling that we sometimes get out of no where. Athletes call it instinct. Hipsters know it as vibes. Scientists claim it’s intuition. You and I probably refer to it as a gut feeling. And, the more spiritual among us might think of it as a sixth sense.

Regardless of what you call it and how you think about it we can all agree that we have experienced a feeling that we can’t quite describe, but oh boy, it sometimes surprises us so much, doesn’t it?

But how much can we trust these gut feelings? Do our gut feelings improve over time? And can we train our guts to provide insights that we might not be able to get from the traditional decision making methods (logic, brain)?

An important question to ask is whether gut feelings are instinct based or intuition based. I believe gut feelings are more based on intuition than instincts. To me instincts are not feelings, they are merely a motor response to outside stimulus, and they are typically fixed and not learned, they are reactive behavior based on some inherited patterns. However, intuition is a feeling of knowing from a combination of our ancestor’s experiences and our own experience.

If I may be so bold to hypothesis on how these gut feelings come about I would go back to the basics of how our brains work. Our brain is a pattern recognition machine. It consumes more than 34GB of information every day and is capable of 100 million MIPS (million computer instructions per second). Gut feelings, in my opinion, are the result of an incomplete pattern recognition chain in the brain and brain’s “predictive” analysis that has not completely collected all of the data points required to make a decisive decision. Instead of a “light bulb” going off in our head, we get a weird feeling in our gut with a voice behind it that alludes to brain’s predicted (but incomplete) answer.

The question is, when can you trust these gut feelings, and how should you train yourself to take advantage of the potential insights?

One of the most important basic human functions is decision making based on picking the signal within the noise. By using intellect only and avoiding your innate wisdom, you are keeping yourself from a lot of undiscovered valuable insights and potentially eliminating some of that noise. The challenge is that you shouldn’t be following your gut blindly and the results are much more effective if you have a deep insight and experience in the particular industry or topic you are making a decision in. If you strike the right balance between data driven decision making and infusing your instincts along the way, you will unlock a new capability that will be extremely helpful in your personal & professional life.

Here are a few tricks I use to take advantage of my gut feelings:

  1. Document your feelings about a decision (before you actually make the decision) and compare the outcome after the decision has actually played out with your initial feelings. I have found this to be extremely helpful in improving my gut feelings over time for future decisions. You have to get comfortable with those feelings.
  2. Act on gut feelings over an extended period of time and don’t use them for instantaneous decision making. I have found gut feelings to work a lot better for decisions that are taken over a few days or few weeks instead of immediate on spot decisions.
  3. Use your gut feeling as an investigative tool. If you have a gut feeling about a certain decision or an event, that is often a good time to start following the signs and spend some time to build data/conviction for a more comprehensive decision.
  4. Be open and honest to yourself and to the people around you when you use your gut feeling to make a decision. This builds internal & external trust and respect for your process.
  5. Repeat, and learn from the bad decisions, and good decisions. Just like you would do with any other logical decisions.

Next time you find yourself battling a decision between your brain and gut perhaps you can appreciate the importance of taking both sides into account and master this beautiful innate wisdom.