I talk to clients a lot about gut instincts, intuition or whatever else you want to call that feeling you get of deep knowing without being able to explain it.
And the reason why I talk about them so often is because too many people ignore them because they frequently don’t seem logical or rational.
In fact quite the opposite, they often seem nebulous, dumb or just plain bizarre.
The net result is when we summarily dismiss the feeling because we don’t understand it, we frequently regret doing so at a later date.
The Repercussions Of Ignoring Your Gut Instinct
I had a good friend who got married even though his gut told him not to. It didn’t end well.
I took a job even though my instinct was screaming, “Nooooooooo Tim, head for the hills!!!” at me. That was an unmitigated disaster.
And I had a friend who was seriously injured in a car accident, even though he felt uneasy from the get-go about accepting the lift home after he missed the last bus.
The common theme with all of the above examples is that the gut feeling didn’t really make much sense at a conscious level and thus they were relatively easy to dismiss.
My friend adored his wife, I liked the look of the job I took and it was great money and my friend was just getting a lift home after having a few beers.
What could possibly go wrong?
It’s Tricky Analyzing A Gut Feeling Consciously
Your gut instincts come from the very old and highly evolved unconscious part of your brain.
Whereas analysis is done at the conscious level (the neo-cortex) which is a few hundred thousands years behind evolutionary speaking and nothing like as efficient at dealing with information.
The best analogy I have ever heard (which I think came from the awesome book, Your Brain At Work) in illustrating the disparity of power, is to think of your conscious mind as being the change in your pocket and your unconscious mind as the US economy.
Have you ever had a feeling that you just know somebody is behind you even though you haven’t heard or seen anything?
Then when you turn round there is indeed somebody sneaking up on you with a large axe?
Ok, hopefully not a large axe, but maybe a friend planning to make you jump?
How did you know?
You will actually find it almost impossible to answer that question because the truth is you don’t know how you knew, you just did.
When anybody comes into close proximity to you there is a slight increase in temperature from their body heat and also movement of air as they move.
The changes are tiny and imperceptible at a conscious level because your conscious struggles to deal adequately with more than about 4 pieces of information at any one time.
The Limitations Of Your Conscious Mind
But your unconscious mind can deal with thousands of things at once and your amygdala, which is the part of your brain on alert for possible threats, has noticed the changes and sends you a warning signal.
Now imagine there really is a mad axeman behind you.
Are you better trying to work out what is giving you a sense of unease, or are you better acting on the uneasy feeling and getting out of the way?
Sitting there thinking, “I have no idea why I’m feeling like this and therefore I may as well ignore the message” is likely to end up with you sans head.
I know that is a rather absurd and over the top example, but it clearly demonstrates why trying to analyze such situations is rarely helpful.
At a conscious level my friend had no idea his wife was going to be crushingly jealous and controlling because she hadn’t overtly demonstrated that side of her character at that point.
I hadn’t noticed that I didn’t trust my soon to be boss because there was nothing tangible to put my finger on. On the surface he seemed like a nice guy and said all the right things.
And the friend who got in the car hadn’t smelt alcohol on the breath of the driver consciously or noticed any of the tiny telltale signs that would have told him the guy shouldn’t be driving and he’d be better walking home.
But in each situation there were enough subtle clues to have the amygdala screaming at all of us, “WTF!!! Did you see that, did you see that??”
Only the amygdala can’t talk or scream at you and it can’t explain to you the myriad of information it has gathered on your behalf to keep you safe.
All it can do is send a feeling that something isn’t quite right and then hopes to hell you won’t ignore it.
I’m not saying that you should never analyze gut feelings because I’m sure there are occasions when that’s useful, even if I’m struggling to think of any at the moment. Please let me know in the comments if you can come up with a great example.
However, I am saying that ignoring your gut feeling because you cannot make sense of it analytically is akin to ignoring the, “Don’t feed the Lions” sign at the zoo because you personally have never seen anybody eaten by a Lion.
What’s your take, do you listen to your intuition or rationalize the crap out of it?
I’m also curious to know if you have ever ignored a really strong gut feeling and severely regretted it afterward.
More Amazing Brain Stuff
If you are fascinated by the human brain and both it’s brilliance and limitations, check out ‘70 Amazing Facts About Your Brain And Why It Does Weird Things’