“As a single parent … I was vulnerable. There was family pressure saying ‘you’re at this stage of life, you should be settling down.’ It led me to rush into decisions based on what they wanted, not what I wanted,” Wood says. “I’d thought I was listening to my gut – my instinct, my intuition – but I wasn’t.”
Psychologist Tahnee Clark, from online psychology platform Lysn, describes the gut as “an internal alarm system” which should play a role in decision making, but tapping into it requires really knowing yourself and your unconscious biases.
Clark says gut instinct is an animalistic wisdom that has been with us since day dot.
Part of this is scientific. According to Annaliese McGavin, a cognitive neuroscientist and psychologist researching the gut-brain connection at UNSW, there are more neurons (information messengers) wrapped around your gut lining than in your brain. In fact, 90-95 per cent of serotonin, the happiness chemical, is made in the gut. But there are limits to what it can tell us.
“The gut-brain connection is exciting. Researchers are still understanding the relationship,” McGavin says. “We don’t necessarily believe from the science side that the gut is directly involved in decision-making – it’s more indirectly involved. It forms part of your intuition. The brain picks up on subconscious cues from the environment and also internally, from our gut. For example, the gut might tell us whether we’re holding an anxious tension.”
There are also detractors to the popular gut-trust aphorism. In a Harvard Business Review article titled “Don’t Trust Your Gut”, author Gary Klein is quoted: “The trust in intuition is understandable … But it’s also dangerous. Intuition has its place in decision-making – you shouldn’t ignore your instincts any more than you should ignore your conscience – but … detached from rigorous analysis, intuition is a fickle and undependable guide – it is as likely to lead to disaster as to success.”
Listening to your gut shouldn’t feel dangerous, Clark says: “Your gut instinct can be hijacked by your brain or clouded by fear. We should always trust our gut, but we may not always have genuine access to it.”
This is why you need the analytical part of your brain to work with your gut. According to McGavin, your gut will tell you your instincts, but a different part of your brain is responsible for controlling your impulses. “Your instinct is a rapid, emotional feeling; useful for decision-making,” she says. “But your impulses come from your ‘lizard’ brain – a primal part that can only tell you to fight or freeze, to eat, or to have sex.”
Clark adds: “It doesn’t give you rich information. So your gut instinct about someone you first meet could be just saying: be aware. Pay attention.” That could mean this person will be significant or nefarious in your life; that analysis is left to your brain’s prefrontal cortex.
Past literature has taught us this deep truth. The original title of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was revealing: First Impressions. It teaches us two things: they matter, but those first impressions, made in your gut, can also lead to prejudice if you place too much emphasis on them.
So has anyone’s genuine gut instinct ever been wrong?
“The reality is they’re never just going with the gut. We’re too complex for that; we can’t segregate the gut from the brain, they’re intrinsically linked,” she says. “Unless in an emergency knee-jerk situation, there’s always some element of higher-order thinking exerting influence, even subconsciously.”
Clark tells her clients that always coming back to your gut is excellent advice: “Once you strip away all the crap, you can tap back into it.”
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Gary Nunn is a contributor to Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.