Whether it’s dating, moving across the country or across the globe, choosing a new career, or deciding when to start a family, our natural, inherent instincts will play a part in those decisions. With a lot on the line, we might choose to go with our gut feeling, or we might try to avoid it altogether. But is it smart to trust our gut, and are our gut instincts usually right?
The Second Brain
What does our gut even have to do with instinct in the first place? The answer is biological, and also pretty fascinating.
We know by now that our gut microbiome plays a huge role in many aspects of our health, not just the functions of our digestive system. Gut microbiomes, which are composed of hundreds of different kinds of bacteria, can influence everything from the development of autoimmune disorders to mental health and mood regulation. Healthy bacteria support a flourishing microbiome, while unhealthy bacteria, which are affected by factors like a poor diet, poor sleep, and other digestive issues, can lead to serious conditions like cancer.
Gut microbiomes can influence everything from autoimmune disorders to mental health to mood regulation.
The connection between our gut and our brain is found in the enteric nervous system (ENS), sometimes called the second brain. The ENS is a “complex system of about 100 million nerves found in the lining of the gut.” It has many structural and chemical parallels to the brain because it developed from the same tissues as the central nervous system (CNS) while you were growing in your mother’s womb. Your ENS (your gut) and CNS (your brain) communicate back and forth through nerves, hormones, impulses, and reactions.
This is how the physiological makeup of our gut can influence the psychology going on in our brains, whether positively or negatively. This relationship forms the basis for the strong connection between our emotions and stress. Stress can severely impair our gut, which sends responses to our emotions through those pathways to react accordingly.
Essentially, when all’s said and done, our gut plays as much a part in decision making and choice as our brains do. We’ve all known the feeling of a sinking stomach when we’re stressed or weighed down, or the function of a healthy digestive system when we’re eating, sleeping, and managing stress well. Our gut is basically our second brain, and it’s there that our instincts form, which then send signals to our brain on how we should react or respond.
More Than a Feeling
When we feel our gut instinct kick in when confronted with a decision, we might feel like our gut is untrustworthy, or like we’re relying solely on feeling rather than on evidence or practicality. In contrast, maybe we’re more inclined to trust our instinct without question rather than factor in sensible considerations.
Our gut is more than a feeling though. It’s an extremely complex biological network made up of physiological aspects which are either firing on all cylinders or running on fumes, depending on our mental and physical health. Either way, can we really trust it? And how do we really know when it’s our gut talking to us or something else?
Our gut plays as much a part in decision making and choice as our brains do.
We have two ways of making decisions: System 1 and System 2. Economist Daniel Kahneman developed these two systems when he was researching decision making and how it’s affected by intuition and cognitive biases. System 1 is known as “fast thinking” – the quick, snap decisions we can make in a second. System 2 is a slower and more methodical system, where we evaluate all our choices before making one. Scientific research on intuition has found that, most of the time, quick decisions are not a bad way to go, since our brain has already taken in a huge amount of information subconsciously that’s influencing our decision. It might feel like an emotional or snap decision because we make it quickly, but our brain has been already working for us without us even knowing it.
Bear in mind that, regardless of which system is at play, our brain is constantly drawing comparisons between what we’re currently experiencing and our experiences of the past, which is where anxiety, fear, and worry can come in and impair how we make our choices. If you’re faced with whether or not to break up with a boyfriend you’ve been with for years, you might choose to stay with them but make that decision based on your years together and the familiarity you feel with them – you’re comparing what the unknown of the present would be like to the comfort of the past. “Trusting your gut” might feel like an emotional decision, but it uses your brain much more than you think.
Using Instincts to Your Advantage
Our instincts serve to protect us more than anything else, and there’s a reason we’re more often advised to trust our gut rather than anything else. In some scenarios, our instinct might take over without us even realizing it, like in cases of fight or flight.
But the key factor that we need in our instinctive-decision making is confidence. Without confidence, making a decision based on instinct can feel like we’ve just made a huge mistake. A study conducted by psychologists at Albright College looked at how often students changed their answers on multiple-choice exams. Researchers found that when the students changed their answers, their instinct to change that answer led to a correct answer. But when students felt uncertain about a particular answer and didn’t change it, the answers were mostly wrong. In fact, the choices they made with the most confidence – especially if they changed them – were the right ones.
Instinctive choices made with confidence are most often the correct choice.
Another study looked at newlywed couples and how they responded to photos of their spouse. Those individuals which responded quickly and positively to their spouses (i.e., they felt positive about them subconsciously) were still married four years later compared to those individuals who hesitated to associate their spouses positively. Those who hesitated were more likely to be divorced in the follow-up investigation.
If you’ve made a choice, your instincts will probably tell you whether or not to feel satisfied with that choice. The decision might be a difficult one, but it can be the one that makes you feel the most confident. Sometimes, we won’t know right away whether or not to feel confident in a choice, but that doesn’t mean we’ve made the wrong one. Looking at our track record, in addition to actively making small, gut-based decisions and building up confidence in our instincts, are all ways to start making stronger, instinct-based choices, thereby increasing trust in ourselves.
Going with our gut can feel like making the emotional decision over the “rational” one. But our gut is more than emotion, and it can give us strong, overwhelming indications on everything from first impressions of strangers to recognizing when our child is feeling sick.
Instinct isn’t necessarily about being right or wrong, but about being satisfied or unsatisfied with the result. We might feel like we need to rely more often on the logical, evidence-based side of the coin (which there is a time and place for), but our instincts exist for a reason, and they will influence us whether we want them to or not.
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