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Science Behind the ‘Gut Feeling’


I’m frustrated by the saying ‘go with your gut feeling.’ Everyone keeps saying that, but as a very rational person, I have tough time understanding what this ‘gut feeling’ is. Is there any science behind it? How do I trust it if I’m not even sure it’s real?

– Paula


Hi Paula,

Current scientific experiments are demonstrating what we call a ‘gut feeling.’ The research is noticing physical reactions that literally involve the gut when people are confronted with certain situations. It might be anywhere from an elevated heart rate, a prickly tingling on the back of the neck, an overall feeling of calm, to a queasy feeling in the stomach. It is the opposite of rational, and it isn’t necessarily negative or positive. It is simply a sensation that someone experiences as indicating something feels all right or conversely, all wrong.

It may be easier to think of it as your brain relying on past knowledge, plus a quick assessment of the present, based on clues and details that you aren’t fully aware of in the moment, as your body’s way of giving you a quick information download. It’s one of several signals to consider when faced with a choice, and it may be of value to at least pause to consider taking, or not taking, an action when it shows up.

I like the model of using head, heart, and gut for making major decisions. First, what, rationally, is your best course of action, and what are the logical consequences of such actions? Next, what is your heart telling you is important; what do you care deeply about in the situation? Finally, what is your body telling you? Is there a discomfort, or conversely, a sense of calm showing up anywhere, and if so, what can you learn from it? If it’s unease, can you distinguish between an irrational fear you can ignore or a warning you need to heed?

A friend and I were on the subway in a foreign country late one evening, and I suddenly had the tingly sensation someone was paying far too much attention to us. When we exited at our stop he did as well, which was highly unusual for a street that was very busy by day but deserted by night. He even paused at the top of the subway stairs, nonchalantly observing which way we were headed before following at a slight distance. We walked mindfully and deliberately the half block to our street, turned the corner and ran to the hotel, quickly locking the door behind us. Was he out to get us? We’ll never know. We may have looked like fools, but trusting our instincts ended with us laughing safely in our room instead of potentially fighting off an attack.

Are you aware of sensations that you may have had in past decisions that you ignored in your effort to be rational? How did those choices turn out? If positive, then don’t change what works. But, in hindsight, if by listening to your ‘gut’ you might have avoided an unpleasant or dangerous experience, perhaps adding it to the equation in the future may be of help.


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