A sixth sense, hunch, or gut feeling: Whatever you choose to call it, the sudden flash of insight from deep within can inspire plenty of faith.
The old saying “trust you gut” refers to trusting these feelings of intuition, often as a way to stay true to yourself.
Following your instinct can certainly direct you toward the best path for you. And yet, you might wonder whether you should put so much trust in a feeling, an instinct you can’t explain.
Wouldn’t sticking to logic and reason help you make better decisions?
Not always. Science suggests intuition can be a valuable tool in some circumstances.
It seems those gut feelings do mean something, and they can often help you make good choices.
What do ‘gut feelings’ actually feel like?
Ever experienced a nagging feeling of unease about a situation? Suddenly felt suspicious about someone you just met? You can’t explain your feelings logically, but you know something isn’t quite right.
Or maybe a rush of affirmation or calm floods you after a tough decision, convincing you that you’re doing the right thing.
Gut feelings can evoke a range of sensations, some not unlike the physical feelings associated with anxiety. Other, more positive sensations might seem to confirm your choice.
Some people describe gut feelings as a small internal voice, but you’ll often “hear” your gut talking to you in other ways.
Signs of a gut feeling
- A flash of clarity
- Tension or tightness in your body
- Goosebumps or prickling
- Stomach “butterflies” or nausea
- A sinking sensation in the pit of your stomach
- Sweaty palms or feet
- Thoughts that keep returning to a specific person or situation
- Feelings of peace, safety, or happiness (after making a decision)
These feelings tend to come on suddenly, though they aren’t always strong or overwhelming.
You might experience them as a faint whisper or the barest sense of uneasiness, but they could also feel so strong, you can’t imagine ignoring them.
If it seems like your brain is encouraging you to take notice of these feelings, well, you’re not far from the mark.
Where do they come from?
Though gut feelings often seem to come out of nowhere, they aren’t random. They don’t actually originate in your gut, either.
The gut-brain connection makes it possible for emotional experiences to register as gastrointestinal distress. When you feel anxious, fearful, or certain that something’s wrong, you might experience stomach twinges, pain, or nausea. That’s where the name “gut feeling” comes from.
Experts have come up with a few potential explanations for these feelings.
Normal brain processes
ResearchTrusted Source links these flashes of intuition to certain brain processes, such as evaluating and decoding emotional and other nonverbal cues.
As you go about your day, your brain collects and processes sensory data from your environment. You’re perfectly aware of some of this information.
For example, if you notice two people shouting and pushing each other outside a store just ahead, you’ll probably cross the street. But you wouldn’t say your gut told you to move, since you made a reasoned decision based on available information.What if you suddenly feel a strong urge to cross the street? There’s no obvious reason behind your impulse, but you can’t ignore it, or the tingling at the back of your neck.
A few seconds after you cross, the sign on the building ahead comes crashing down, right where you would have been walking. You stare in disbelief, heart pounding. How did you know that would happen?
This flash of intuition probably doesn’t relate to any mystical sixth sense. It’s more likely that as you walked, you made some unconscious observations.
Maybe one corner of the sign hung loose, wavering in the wind and slapping against the building. Perhaps other pedestrians noticed and stepped out of the way, and you followed without realizing it.
Predictions based on experience
You can also think of gut feelings as a type of prediction based on experiences. Even memories you don’t fully recall, or information you aren’t consciously aware of, can guide you.
A 2016 study that attempted to measure intuition tested this idea:
- Researchers asked student participants to look at a screen of tiny moving dots and determine whether the dots moved toward the right or left side of the screen.
- At the same time, the researchers also showed participants images designed to inspire positive or negative emotions: a puppy, a baby, a gun, a snake. These images told them which way the dots were moving on the screen.
- Participants only saw these images through one eye, but they didn’t know they were seeing them. They viewed the dots through a mirror stereoscope, a device that allowed researchers to block those images from their conscious awareness.
When participants “saw” these images, their decisions became faster and more accurate. Skin conductance responses, which measure physiological arousal, suggest the participants also reacted to the images physically — even though they never realized what they were looking at.
Consider these examples of how existing knowledge - even if you aren’t aware of it - can trigger gut feelings.
A group of friends ask you to dinner at a popular restaurant. Something tells you not to go, and you pass on the invite.
A few days later, you hear that nearly everyone who went came down with food poisoning. That’s when you remember reading a critique of the restaurant that pointed out several unsanitary food preparation practices.
Or you match with someone on an online dating app and meet in person after a few weeks of texting. Things start off well, but suddenly you feel uncomfortable, though you can’t say why.
Eventually you say you’re not feeling well and leave. Back home, trying to puzzle out what happened, you glance back over their profile and early messages.
Some of the information — their last job, where they went to school, how their last relationship ended — completely conflicts with what they said on the date. You didn’t catch the lies in the moment, but they still served as red flags to wave you off.
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