We all experience them from time to time: those funny gut feelings — sometimes a twinge, a flutter, or just a vague “spidey sense” we can’t explain — about a situation or decision at hand.
It turns out those intuitive feelings can have a surprisingly rational basis. But our cultural conditioning does little to help us value or make sense of them.
So in this installment of The Living Experiment, we explore the essentials and finer points of what many call our sixth sense. We consider the growing body of science that ties our intuition to our intestinal tract, and we address the power of “thin slicing,” in which our brain processes more data than our conscious awareness can absorb.
And of course, we offer experiments for helping you understand the signals your intuition is sending you.
The Real Gut in “Gut Feelings”
There’s a reason we don’t call our intuitive feelings “hand feelings” or “ear feelings”: They really do originate in our gut — or to be more precise, within the enteric nervous system (ENS), which is housed within our intestinal tract.
- The ENS, as described by researcher Michael Gershon, MD, in his book The Second Brain, functions very much like an independent cerebellum. Lined with nerve cells, it is capable of reacting to all sorts of stimuli without direction from our head-based brain or central nervous system.
Your Unconscious Mind
- The gut (and the microbiome within it) both produces and responds to its own store of neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine.
- While your gut is busy producing and processing all of these informational inputs, it is also sending data to the brain.
- Meanwhile, your brain is gathering information from all your other senses, including details of sight, sound, smell, and touch.
- That’s way too much information for the rational mind to process in any conscious way. But whether by the phenomenon of thin slicing or by some other rapid-fire organization and analysis of information (which neurologists are still studying), it is clear that the brain can come to surprisingly accurate split-second decisions. This “thinking without thinking” results in a clear but inexplicable sense of knowing.
- Such intuitive “knowings” can guide our decisions in powerful ways. A good example of this is a study in which subjects’ bodies accurately identified a “safe” deck of playing cards over the “risky” deck long before their rational brains could explain why. (We talk more about this in the podcast!)
- Unfortunately, our intuition can be hijacked by prejudice and social conditioning. Our delicate intuitive senses can also get overwhelmed by excessive sensory stimulation and information overload — a huge problem in our modern-day, media-flooded world.
When to Take Action
So how can you begin better interpreting the messages your intuition is trying to send you? First, learn to recognize your own physical indicators:
- Positive “go toward” intuitive signals often feel warm, relaxed, or fluttery.
- Negative “stay away” signals may feel like chills, twinges, contractions, or fatigue.
Next, practice tuning in to and testing your intuitive sense in low-risk situations (like the experiments below). That way you’ll have more confidence in your instincts when they really count.
Dallas suggests: Think about a decision you have to make (e.g., where to go on vacation). Ask yourself — or better yet, have someone else ask you — this simple question: “What’s the best thing for you?” Pausing no longer than two seconds, take the first answer you get. See what happens when you don’t overthink it.
Pilar suggests: Next time you are at a restaurant, rather than reading the menu and carefully weighing all your options, just give it a quick visual scan and pick the first item that looks interesting or appealing to you. Trust your brain and body to pick something good. Enjoy the novelty — and decisiveness — of that experience.