The Gut Instinct Is Not a Wild Guess

Our gut feelings may be more rational than we think

Mukundarajan V N


Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

“In addition to their indispensable role in helping us digest large parts of our diet, it is becoming clear that gut microbes have an extensive and wholly unexpected influence on the appetite-control systems and emotional operating systems in our brain, in our behaviour, and even on our minds. These invisible creatures in our digestive system have a word to say when it comes to how we feel, how we make our gut-based decisions, and how our brain develops and ages.”

(Emeran Mayer, M D, a pioneer in mind-gut research and author of “The Mind-Gut Connection: How the Hidden Conversation Within Our Bodies Impacts Our Mood.”)

Sometimes we take a snap decision after experiencing a visceral feeling. We can’t explain what prompted us to do so. It is a gut feeling, a voice from inside that tells us things like “Do this” or “Don’t trust this person”.

Gut instinct or intuition is a physiological phenomenon. The gut feeling arises without conscious awareness. It operates at the subconscious level. It is the product of the constant conversations that our brains and gut hold with each other.

Let’s look at some momentous historical decisions taken under the influence of the gut instinct.

The McDonalds was born out of a gut feeling

Ray Kroc was a milkshake mixer salesperson. When he got many orders from the customers of a particular hamburger joint, he visited the outlet owned by two brothers in San Bernardino, California.

When he entered the joint, its cleanliness and orderly customer service struck Ray. Something about the burger joint excited him to consider its tremendous business prospects. Suddenly he bought the franchise rights to operate the joints in different places.

Within a few years, Ray decided to buy out the two owners ignoring the opposition from his wife and lawyers. He did not even change the name- McDonald. The rest is history.

What made Ray spend millions and buy out the burger joint? In his own words,

“I felt in my funny bone that it was a sure thing.”

The expert’s gut instinct detected a fake art

Malcolm Gladwell, in his bestseller, “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking”, tells the story of a fake statue acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum in California. The museum spent about $10 million to buy this piece from an art dealer who claimed it belonged to the 4th century B.C.

In 1986, after fourteen months of investigations, the museum displayed the statue as a proud acquisition. Just before the display, the museum’s curator took two experts- Italian art historian Fredrico Zeri and Greek sculpture expert Evelyn Harrison to have a look at the statue. Both of them instinctively sensed that it was a fake. When the statue arrived in Greece for expert appraisal, they confirmed it was a fake. The experts said they felt an “intuitive repulsion.” And they were right.

A Soviet soldier uses his gut instinct to prevent World War- III

On September 26, 1985, Stanislav Petrov, the young officer at the Air Defence Forces, sat in his bunker outside Moscow. He was monitoring the computer screen for messages from Soviet satellites. The satellite systems suddenly sent out an alarm message about an American missile attack. The satellites mistakenly detected five U.S. ballistic missiles heading toward the Soviet Union. Alarm bells rang, and a screen flashed “Launch”.

Petrov chose not to act on the warning. Had he relied on his reasoning and logic, he would have allowed a launch of nuclear missiles and started World War -III.

It was a high-pressure situation. Petrov’s training and the protocols demanded him to follow the rules. That was the rational thing to do. Soldiers do not exercise their discretion. They follow rules and obey orders.

What made Petrov ignore the satellite warning? Imagine the fate of a Soviet soldier who made a costly mistake.

Though the world hailed Petrov a hero, he was initially not willing to admit he took a risk. To do so would be to invite censure for acting unprofessionally.

Petrov tried to rationalize his inaction saying that America was not silly to launch an attack with just five missiles. It would have launched hundreds of missiles. Also, the ground radar did not confirm the flight if the missiles.

It took several years for Petrov to spill the beans. In a 2013 interview, he confessed he decided on what he described as “a funny feeling in my gut.”

Miracle on River Hudson

Source: CNN

A pilot’s gut instinct saved 155 lives on board a passenger jet. On January 15, 2009, Captain Chesley Sullenberger and co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles took off from New York City’s LaGuardia Airport to Charlotte, North Carolina. Within a couple of minutes, birds hit the plane and damaged both its engines.

The air traffic controller suggested the pilot return to LaGuardia Airport or make an emergency landing at the nearby Teterboro Airport. However, Captain Sullenberger landed on the Hudson river as he knew he would never make an emergency landing considering the plane’s speed and altitude.

The brave captain and his co-pilot saved the lives of all those on board. Captain Sullenberger was an experienced air force fighter pilot. He had the experience and professional competency to tackle an emergency. Had he listened to the controller’s suggestion or had merely relied on his professional training manuals, he would have attempted a risky airport landing.

The captain’s gut feeling, honed by his thousands of flying hours, prompted him to try a river landing. He listened to his gut instinct, and the rest is history.

Brain-Gut axis

“Your body is your subconscious mind,” (Dr.Candace Pert, author of “Molecules of Emotion,”)

Welcome to the world of gut feelings! Or rather welcome to the world of the microbiome- the gut’s marvellous community comprising trillions of microbes!

The gut or the digestive system is the origin of gut feelings.

The gut or the digestive system, the microbes, and the brain are in constant communication with one another. The dialogue is bi-directional. A block in these two- way communication causes many mental and physical problems like depression, Alzheimer’s disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, etc.

The GI tract has its own nervous system, the Enteric Nervous System (ENS). They call it the “second brain”.

The gut contains the body’s largest collection of immune cells and 95% of Serotonin, the molecule responsible to a large extent for our physical and mental well- being.

The gut mirrors every emotion that arises in the brain.

Positive and negative experiences create particular sensations in the gut. When the information about the sensations reaches the brain, it constructs a vast library of gut feelings. The brain constructs subjective gut feelings from its salience system. This system works like an antenna that brings something in the environment to our attention.

Emeran Mayer refers to the neuroscientist John Allman who researched the cells in the brain’s frontal insula called von Economo neurons (VENs). These cells enable us to make intuitive judgments.

When we decide based on our gut feelings, the brain refers to the vast cache of emotional memories relating to life events and circumstances. The brain predicts how we will feel based on memories of similar experiences without the need to relive the past, whether painful or happy.

How to improve the gut-based decision-making skills

Gut feelings haven’t yet secured broad scientific endorsement as a sound decision-making tool. This is because research on brain-microbiome-gut connections has not received wide acceptability. The emphasis on rational decision-making devalues gut-based intuitions as unreliable.

The problem is not with gut feelings per se. Outside influences like traumatic experiences, mood disorders, and clever subliminal advertising can corrupt gut feelings. As Emeran Mayer said:

“So the question becomes not whether you can trust your gut feelings, but how you can learn to accurately identify what your true gut feelings are. Although the circuitry for making instantaneous gut- based, intuitive decisions evolved to enable you to live and navigate in complex societies, your challenge today is to use your gut to understand what is meaningful to you.”

Our diet has an enormous impact on the microbiome. Consumption of animal-based fats and processed foods compromise the health and diversity of the gut microbes. Using antibiotics disrupts the microbiome’s diversity. Chronic stress also plays havoc with gut bacteria.

Improper diet and antibiotics disturb brain-microbiome-gut conversations.

We can improve the gut bacteria’s health by taking more plant-based diets, fermented food and probiotics. The first two-and-a-half years of a child’s life are very important in building a healthy microbiome.

Mindfulness meditation has a positive impact on the gut-brain axis. We increase our present-awareness and equip ourselves with the attention needed to listen to our gut feelings.

New research confirms the biological underpinnings of gut instinct

After examining many patients with brain injury, Neurologist Antonio Damasio, and author of the book, “Descartes’ Error” came up with the ‘somatic marker hypothesis’ of emotion and decision making.

The somatic marker hypothesis states that every experience is immediately processed non-consciously. This process causes a series of changes within our body such as fluctuations in the heart rate, a knot in the stomach, or build-up of sweat on the skin. We become conscious of these feelings only after the brain senses these somatic markers and interprets them according to the context and its knowledge of emotional states.

The bodily changes are the intuitive feelings we call as gut instinct.

People differ in their sensitivity to gut feelings. They call this sensitivity ‘interoception.’ Only people with high interoception can read their gut feelings properly and make sound decisions.

Gut feelings, if influenced b external factors like for example weather-related low moods or physical pain, can lead us astray. People with low interoception need to differentiate their emotions and regulate them before they can tap into their gut instinct for deciding.

Doctors should write down what their gut instinct tells them about a patient immediately. They should later validate their gut feelings with evidence.

How do you measure your interoception level? Take the heartbeat counting test. Ask your friend to take your pulse. While they are doing it, try to feel your heart and count the number of beats. On average, there is a thirty per cent variation in people’s estimates. Those with a hundred per cent accuracy have the best interoception level.

Wrapping up

The gut instinct is not a random and whimsical impulse. It arises from a synergy between the brain, the microbiome and the gut. Neurological and physiological research has confirmed the biological underpinnings of the gut instinct.

Gut feeling fails because the characteristics of modern lifestyles like eating animal-based and processed foods and the prevalence of chronic stress have compromised the brain-gut interactions. Indiscriminate use of antibiotics has disrupted the microbiome’s diversity.

We can improve our microbiome diversity by reducing meat consumption and eating organic plant-based food, fermented food, and probiotics. Mindfulness meditation also helps to maintain the but- brain axis at an optimal level.

Intuition and reason are both part of our evolutionary past and I suspect are equally necessary for survival. (James Lovelock)

It is better to use the gut instinct in tandem with evidence-based wisdom as most of us lack the sensitivity to read gut feelings.

Dr Christian Busch, in his book, “Serendipity Mindset: The Art and Science of Creating Good Luck,”, says:

Learning to trust our gut feelings can help us navigate difficult situations- as long as we have enough information so that we have an informed gut feeling.

Thanks for reading!



Mukundarajan V N

Retired banker living in India. Avid reader. I write to learn, inform and inspire. Believe in ethical living and sustainable development.