Primal Instincts: The Science of Intuition and Going With Your Gut

When I was applying for university at the tender age of 15 (yes, I went young and began my freshman year aged 16), there was one that stood out among the others: Tufts University. It was a great school – part of the “New Ivy League”, with prestigious alumni, and a Goldilocks-esque campus that wasn’t too big yet wasn’t too small. But that was the case for many others I’d applied to – so why was it when the fat, A-4-sized acceptance letters started rolling in (yes, I’m old enough to have done this during the days of post), this was the one that I knew my heart had settled on? I couldn’t explain it, but I just knew it was the one. I’ve never regretted or doubted my decision, and the four years I spent there were among the most pivotal in my life.

I still remember the day I went in for my interview at a large publishing house in the Middle East, for a role as the Deputy Editor of a number of exhibition and trade show catalogues. The job itself would be far from thrilling, in all honesty, but the Editor had been straight-up with me about that, and we just clicked. Aside from the fact that she was a kindred spirit, I had a feeling that not only was she going to offer me the job, but that of the countless interviews and applications I’d gone through, this was the one – and that within a year or two, I’d also snag my dream job at a women’s consumer lifestyle magazine by applying from within the company. I couldn’t explain it, but I just knew it. I did it in 1.5 years, and ended up staying on at the company for 6.5 more, during which I launched and became the Editor-in-Chief of one of the region's most well-respected, internationally branded consumer magazine titles.

When I entered a boxing competition that would also be filmed for a reality TV show, my friends told me I was mad. I knew that not only would I make the cut, and down to the final fight teams on the very last night months later, but also that it would change my perspective on life forever – not physically, since that wasn’t the challenge I was afraid of, but emotionally. Following that period of my life, the first time I ever fell in love for real, it made zero sense to me – despite being a creative soul, logic has always ruled me when it comes to relationships, but there I found myself thrown into an unfamiliar abyss that defied all reason, to me anyway. Yet my gut told me that I’d never been more certain of anything in my life.

With the exception of my unfortunate weakness for carbohydrate-dense foods (I blame my genetics; I’m the product of cultures steeped in a history of rice and bread), I’ve always believed in the importance of going with my instincts. And I’m not alone: Throughout the years, countless studies from scientists all over the world have delved into the importance of our gut feelings.

I Feel It In My Bones - Or Is It My Brain?

According to the results of a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, when participants were asked to choose between two options solely based on instinct, 90% of the time, they’d make the right decision. The professor leading the study claimed that this is because a key part of the decision-making process involves us assessing the pros and cons of each option to come up with our final conclusion, whether we realise it or not – and as such, suggests that our intuition is simply our minds doing this for us in hyperspeed.

Some experts claim that following our gut instincts can actually be better than making a calculated decision based on poring over facts and figures for hours on end: More work on the subject from professors at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School suggests that too much information can confuse the mind and thwart the direction that would naturally suit our needs best. While many people believe that emotions are best kept separate from logic and reason, strong theories argue that we can actually be better served if we do incorporate feeling into the decision-making process, if we can only learn to recognize this and combine those primal messages with facts.

The hypothesis of somatic markers, by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio from the University of Southern California, proposes that our responses to past experiences are stored in the brain and body, associated with certain physical reactions that are triggered by similar situations. As such, these markers can influence future decision-making, and enable us to learn from past behaviour, adapting our choices based on our past mistakes (or indeed, wins) on a more subconscious level – and helping us make faster decisions that are more rational in our personal bigger picture, even in more complex, hurried, stressful, or uncertain situations. These markers are said to be stored in our brain’s ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) and the amygdala – and patients who have suffered damage to the frontal lobe, where the VMPFC is located, have been found to not only have difficulty expressing and experiencing “appropriate” emotions, but also to struggle with working memory, attention, language comprehension and expression, and importantly, their ability to plan behaviour and make decisions.

Training Your Brain - And Your Gut (Instinct)

Another study, led by a professor of psychology at Australia's University of New South Wales, actually claims that intuition - defined, in this case, as a brain process that allows people to make decisions without analytical reasoning, through non-conscious emotional information from the body or brain - is a measurable thing. Researchers conducted experiments that showed participants a series of monochrome images of dots on a screen, asking them to identify whether the dots moved right or left. Their answer would determine which resulting colour on the screen afterwards. What the participants didn't know was that embedded in the resulting flash of colour were images, interspersed so quickly that participants didn't know they were in there. Each image portrayed something that would trigger a positive or negative emotion, from puppies to guns. Those who were exposed to positive imagery scored better than those exposed to the negative ones, with researchers theorizing that the positive subliminal associations garnered from the imagery led to those participants feeling happier and more confident, and therefore able to make decisions more quickly and assuredly. The researchers also concluded that, as such, intuition can, in fact, be trained, and that the more we use it, the more likely we are to trust it, and have it lead to more adept decision-making.

Photograph: Shutterstock.

While somatic markers are not 100% reliable, the theory (and associated research and experiments) do support the idea that the part of us that makes sound decisions best suited to our unique needs is very closely linked to the part that processes our emotions, feelings, and reactions. In short, I guess this is what they call baggage – and like a double-edged sword, while it would help us learn from the mistakes of our past for better decisions in the future, this would also explain where fear, trust issues, and other related insecurities from our past can come into play in future situations, particularly in relationships for instance. How many times have you met someone wonderful, only to have bad experiences from the past strike fear into your heart about what awful things might come next, whether there’s any due cause for it or not? We all remember that episode of SATC where Carrie, so traumatized by her past heartbreak and deception from previous dates not staying true to the character they first portrayed, that when she finally met an actually nice guy, she went mad frantically searching for evidence of his “sure to come” bad behaviour in his apartment – until he came home and deemed her the untrustworthy, “crazy” one.

So can we conclude that gut instinct is simply our brain’s warp-speed mode, where it makes a series of incredibly rapid calculations before we’ve been allowed to think about it too much and in turn, potentially f**k up our decisions by trying to lead us astray with too much choice? Perhaps – but does that also mean our gut instinct is always the best choice? Not necessarily, when you consider that those instincts may be caused by knee-jerk behaviour, and in some cases, perhaps we’re actually better off un-learning what we’ve come to know and starting off with a clean slate. Let’s not forget: If you were to do a really quick scan of something, you’d definitely get the gist of the bigger picture, but you might miss out on some important details that could be a game-changer down the line.

As such, perhaps it’s better to conclude that we are best served with a combination of instinct and logic, of gut and mind: That there needn’t be a battle between them, but rather, that they should work in harmony to ensure you’re making the right choices for you – or at least if they’re the wrong ones, they’re some that you won’t regret, and can learn from positively for the future. To allow your intuition to let you see the bigger picture, then zoom in on the facts and finer details before you sign on the dotted line, so to speak. I’d like to think of it as a marriage of my conscious and unconscious mind. If logic is the wheel steering my ship, then my intuition is its rudder, making sure that it’s driving along the right general path – that way, even if I’m uncertain of the facts and need to throw all caution to the wind, my gut – so often called our “other heart” – remains my trusted guide. And that’s a process I can live with, as long as I’m always the one standing at the helm.

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