Whenever there is a disaster reported, there are always people telling the story of how they somehow ‘knew’ not to get on that plane, or go to that place. They followed their ‘gut instincts’ which kept them safe.

What science has to say about gut instincts.

In fact, there is a clear scientific basis to the idea of ‘gut feelings’ . In one piece of research, people were asked to play a card game and try to win the most money. They didn’t realise that the game had been rigged from the start. There were two stacks of cards to choose from; one was set up to provide big wins followed by big losses, while the other stack provided small gains but almost no losses.  

After taking about 50 cards, people started to say that they had a hunch that one stack was safer, and after 80 cards or so, they were sure. However, after taking only 10 cards, their bodies already knew this information. Their palms started sweating slightly when they reached for a card from the ‘dangerous’ stack. In other words, their gut instinct started to guide them away from danger long before they had any conscious sense of which stack of cards was safer.

There is an extensive network of neurons connecting the gut and the brain, often called the ‘second brain’, and it seems that the gut is often aware of danger before these signals reach the brain.

Why you should be cautious about following your ‘gut’.

However, we should also be cautious about trusting our ‘gut feelings’, because they are based on fear. Sometimes this may be appropriate, but often it isn’t. We may react with fear because we are subconsciously reminded of a previous trauma, or because we have simply mis-read the situation, and it may be completely inappropriate.

Why logic isn’t always the way to go either.

That said, this doesn’t mean that the logical brain is always better at dealing with situations.  Logic obviously has its place, but have you ever stared at that list of pros and cons and STILL had no clue what to do? In fact, research has found that making complex decisions using your logical thinking brain is less likely to lead to a positive outcome than using your intuition.

Follow your heart.

So, if intuition isn’t the same thing as gut instincts, what is it exactly? It seems to be a kind of inner wisdom or ‘knowing’, which traditionally has always been associated with the heart. In the same way that we refer to gut feelings, we also often tell people to make a decision by  ‘following your heart’.

And again, it seems that there is a physiological basis for this. The heart also has a ‘brain’, with neurons, neurotransmitters, proteins and support cells, much like the brain itself. It communicates information to the brain through an electromagnetic field. It has been suggested  (McCraty, Bradley and Tomasino 2004) that this field, which is about 500 times stronger than the brain’s magnetic field, in fact synchronises the entire body.

Therefore, when looking for inner wisdom or knowing, it is the heart with which we need to connect. We are indeed our own best guide, but it can take guidance and practice to learn how to effectively connect with this inner wisdom, rather than with our fear, or only with our logical brain.