Intuition: Should You Ever Trust A Gut Feeling?
Mark Twain once said that making good decisions comes from experience and that experience comes from making bad decisions.
Having turned down a chance to invest in Alexander Bell’s newest invention – the telephone – Twain was undoubtedly experienced in the latter.
But hindsight is 20/20, and when it comes to making poor life choices, most of us shouldn’t throw any stones.
In a previous article, I analysed the factors that often lead to sorry decision-making. I also mentioned the dangers of putting gut before logic – or indeed putting logic before gut.
In the first of this two-part series on intuition, I’ll demystify the gut feeling and look at it from a neurological standpoint – making it a little less Final Destination 2 and a little more ER.
In Part 2, I discuss the major mistakes and biases you need to be mindful of when applying your intuition. I’ll also provide you with several tools to help you sharpen it.
Gut feelings and decision-making
In my coaching practice, I often come across clients who are facing complex decisions and aren’t quite sure how to proceed.
Should they uproot themselves to pursue a career in another city? Turn their back on a decade’s worth of career capital to follow their passion in an unrelated field? Walk away from a tired marriage where the only intimacy consists of folding their partner’s underpants?
Even ‘smaller’ decisions like figuring out how to ask for a promotion, pursuing a new business venture, or telling your partner they might have a drinking problem can be hugely stressful experiences.
Here’s what most of us think we do when faced with such decisions. We start by setting out the pros and cons of each option and then decide rationally what the best course of action is given the circumstances. What actually happened is that our intuition has already made the decision more often than not. We’re merely using our rational mind to justify that decision for us.
Where to start
‘Intuition’ is a blurry term. Ask a hundred people, and you’ll get a hundred different interpretations – ranging from old-fashioned common sense or professional judgment to higher consciousness or clairvoyant superpowers. If you believe it’s the latter, you might want to close your eyes for the following few paragraphs because I’m about to ruin your juju.
We usually become aware of our intuition by feeling that something’s ‘off’. It often shows itself as a strong, sometimes overwhelming need to be on your guard or take a particular action course. And even though you don’t know precisely why that course of action is the right one, you feel pretty confident that it is.
Intuition is your brain using your body as a signalling device to tell you that something’s going on which hasn’t reached your conscious awareness yet.
In other words, your subconscious is trying to get the attention of your conscious mind. Many people experience it like a funny feeling in the tummy, so we often refer to it as a gut feeling.
So, is intuition nothing more than just a dumb bodily response?
Our brains as prediction machines
Every second, our brain picks up millions of bits of sensory data. The vast majority of this data will never enter our conscious awareness, so we ignore it.
The brain does its best in helping us to figure out which data is relevant and which isn’t. Rather than treating each bit of information as a new event worthy of our attention, it constantly tries to forecast what deserves our focus and what doesn’t. The brain prevents us from having a sensory meltdown by acting as a prediction machine.
Highway hypnosis is an excellent example of this. It refers to the altered mental state you get into when driving across a long distance. Despite operating on auto-pilot, you’re still able to respond to external events in an entirely safe and correct manner. Except of course when stuff like this happens.
The part of the brain that allows us to do this is the hippocampus. Located right next to the Amygdala – the structure that regulates our emotions – the hippocampus creates and indexes all new memories. It also compares all incoming sensory data with existing memories.
When a new bit of data comes in that happens to be similar to something the brain has experienced before (e.g. an existing memory), the hippocampus will generate a match, which is the equivalent of ‘Nothing to see here – let’s move on’.
But the moment something unexpected happens, it’ll generate a mismatch. The hippocampus will then signal to the Amygdala that something odd is going on. The Amygdala will then raise the alarm in the form of an emotional response.
In other words, your hippocampus constantly matches new experiences with existing memories. And while a mismatch might not reach your conscious awareness, it’ll always find its way to the Amygdala, which will then respond by triggering that queasy feeling in the tummy.
To use an analogy, your body gets the latest gossip straight from the horse’s mouth, while the conscious mind will find out two days later via Facebook.
Intuition – a mystical power?
This may be disappointing to the now grown-up indigo children among you, but having a strong intuition about something doesn’t signal clairvoyance or mystical powers.
All that’s happened is that your brain has interpreted a set of data and then reached a conclusion without using conscious thought – or indeed proof.
You’re walking down a crowded metro station but feel the need to get the hell out. Or you sense your partner of ten years might be cheating on you. Neither of these situations provides you with evidence that something is wrong. Yet, your subconscious mind already picked up a bunch of people panicking at the bottom of the escalator. Or it noticed your partner being iffy about leaving their phone in your line of sight. The ‘proof’ is there. It’s just that your conscious mind hasn’t yet been aware of it.
Gut feeling and intuition often also get confused with instinct. But intuition and instinct are not the same. Instincts are hardwired reflexes in the nervous system. If you put your hand on a hot stove, you’ll pull it away.
You were never taught how to do this – your body always knew, and your response is therefore instinctual.
Intuition is also different from insights. The latter are the fruits of conscious and rational thought whenever we mull over a problem. Insights require a certain incubation period. You need time to ‘think’ about an issue, unlike instincts and intuition, so they don’t appear instantly.
Logical reason and intuition are both considered the two general modules of thinking. But while analytical thinking is conscious, deliberate, and slow – intuitive thinking is subconscious, automatic and fast.
Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman referred to these two modules as ‘System 1’ (intuition) and ‘System 2’ (reasoning).
System 1 allows us to spot someone lying to our face and easily complete phrases such as ‘Laurel and …’ System 2 is what guided me to put these words on paper and decide what to have for lunch in about one hour.
Two peas in a pod
Systems 1 and 2 are complementary rather than opposites. Even if it looks like you’re using one system over the other, you’re probably using both. Indeed, research shows that intuitive and analytical thinking often happens simultaneously.
Many of you left-brained people might argue that analytical thinking is the better of the two systems. You might consider intuitive thinking too sloppy or ad hoc. But as many of us over-thinkers will testify, rational thought isn’t always much better.
Besides, as we found out earlier, our intuition made it for us even when we think we made a rational decision. We simply used reason to then give weight to that decision.
In his book, ‘The Righteous Mind’, Jonathan Haidt uses the analogy of a President (intuition) making a sloppy, off-the-cuff policy announcement, with their Press Secretary (rational mind) then scrambling to justify the decision in public. Sounds familiar?
So, should you trust your gut?
When should we preference intuition, and when should we prioritise rational thinking instead?
To answer this question, let me remind you that intuition signals a mismatch between your current experience and the bank of similar experiences stored in your brain. Your reservoir of memories helps the hippocampus predict whether your current situation is different from any other situations you have experienced before.
Logically, the larger the memory reservoir your hippocampus can filter through, the more accurate your intuition will be.
That’s why you should only trust your gut in those areas where you know you have a vast pool of memories to work with. In other words, the more experienced you are, the better your intuition.
According to Eric Bonabeau in the Harvard Business Review, being too arrogant about one’s intuition is a problem for many business executives. ‘It makes us feel special. Any idiot can run the numbers, but the gift of a good gut – that’s reserved for the true business elite.’
But it can take many years to hone your intuitive finesse in a particular area, which explains why employees who were doing well at a certain level often bomb the moment they step up the career ladder. Having long been celebrated for their excellent business acumen, their inflated egos have created a false sense of capability.
Their memory reservoir no longer serves them in their new environment – creating mismatches where there shouldn’t be any. They can no longer trust their intuition.
Practise getting better at using your intuition
Although deep down, intuition is nothing more than a ‘dumb’ bodily response to external stimuli, that doesn’t make it any less of a powerful decision-making tool. Indeed, and while it’s important to be aware of its limitations, Systems 1 thinking is essential for making life decisions or solving complex problems.
While some people are skilled intuitive decision-makers, most of us aren’t. We ignore the obvious somatic signs that would guide us in the right direction if we knew how to notice and interpret them. Simply setting an intention to be more intuitive would already go a long way. For example, by asking yourself: 'If I knew I would receive help from my intuition, what am I most concerned about or most interested in terms of XYZ. You then allow yourself to listen out for the answers. These may come in the form of conscious thought, a visual signal like a window sign, or the lyrics of a song you suddenly hone into while listening to Spotify.
Below, I’ll set out a couple of simple visualisation exercises and personal stillness rituals that will help you familiarise yourself with your intuition. If you’re a left-brain analytical person (a ‘senser’ if you’re familiar with Myers-Briggs Type Indicator), you’ll definitely want to play around with a few of these.
Developed by Sharon Franquemont at Charles Meadows, they might appear a little woo-woo, but they’ll be useful in helping you lean into your subconscious thinking.
Exercise 1: literal intuition (aka asking for a sign)
Find a place to sit comfortably.
Follow your breath by counting '1' on the inhale and '2' on the exhale.
Once your mind feels quiet and relaxed, decide on a situation you'd like more insight about.
Focus on this situation intently for a few minutes. Let it play out in your mind.
Ask your subconscious for a direct intuitive experience about this situation in the near future.
Let it go.
Don’t wait for the experience to happen, but be alert enough to notice when it does.
Exercise 2: Indirect (symbolic) intuition
Find pen and paper.
Pausing between each question, ask yourself three times in a row: ‘What does my life need right now?’
Imagine getting towards a more meaningful answer every time you ask the question.
After the third question, pick up your pen and draw a symbol on your paper. Whichever symbol or doodle comes to mind.
Now interpret this symbol in whichever way you feel is helpful. What does it suggest you add or subtract from your life?
Exercise 3: Dreams and altered states
Before going to bed at night or having a daytime nap, have a pen and paper close by.
After laying down, mentally ask your intuition to come up with a dream or image that will benefit your life and the lives of those around you.
Repeat this request as many times as possible before drifting off.
After waking up, write or draw whatever comes to mind, even if you don’t remember anything specific.
Interpret what you’ve received and act on its advice if appropriate.
Repeat as often as you want.
Exercise 4: Choosing which sense you want to develop
Intuition uses our senses to describe or receive information and or knowledge. You can choose to hone in on any of these senses and practise them as you see fit.
Find a two to three-hour slot in your diary.
Get in your car (or if you are without a car, you can walk) and begin to drive without knowing where you are going.
Resist the first few 'ideas' about where you think you should be going. Wait for the idea that makes your body feel relaxed.
You’re using your body here as a barometer of what’s right. If your decision arises from intuition, you’ll experience inner stillness, silence, and a simple 'knowing' that it’s right.
Now visit whichever place or person your intuitive body suggested
Sit somewhere quiet.
Relax your eyebrows and forehead.
Let your face muscles 'melt' into ease.
Inhale and exhale as rhythmically as possible.
Let your ‘inner eyes’ create a vision of you where you radiate health and happiness.
Here you get to connect with your inner DJ.
Sit quietly and invite your DJ to play a song that it feels is relevant for you.
Listen to what you hear, even if it’s only a few lines from the lyrics that come to mind.
Now ask your intuition why it chose that song at this moment.
Conclusion: understanding your superpower
While there’s certainly no magic behind intuition, that doesn’t make it any less of a superpower. A good gut feeling often bridges the gap between the subconscious mind and your body. It allows you to access crevices of knowledge that your conscious awareness can’t always reach.
In my next article, I’ll look at how you can become more familiar with this superpower. I’ll also talk about the most common psychological biases you need to be mindful of when deciding to trust your gut. Finally, I’ll provide you with tools to create a better discipline around honing your intuition.
For now, simply be mindful when you have a strong gut feeling about a specific course of action. See it as an invitation to take a rational look at what’s going on.
Imagine you’re in a theatre looking at the stage. If your gut tells you something might be going on behind the curtain, ask your rational brain to check what’s going on in front of that curtain first.
Besides, Kahneman himself came up with a lovely antidote to being overly reliant on one’s intuition – frowning. Indeed, putting on a frown apparently activates our inner scepticism and reduces overconfidence – another good reason to resist that Botox just a bit longer.