Decision-Making 101: Trust Your Gut

Science Features Neuroscience
Share Tweet Submit Pin
Decision-Making 101: Trust Your Gut

You’re just about to dash out of your home. You’re worried you’ll be late for work when, suddenly, you have a sensation that hits you in the pit of your stomach. You think to yourself: “Maybe I won’t take the subway today. Maybe Uber would be better.” In a split second, you switch gears, take the car, and arrive to work on time. When you switch on your computer and read about the two-hour transit delays, you realize you just saved yourself a trip to the boss’s office.

You can thank your gut for saving you your job.

But, if you think this was a fluke, think again. Gut reactions should not be dismissed as a mere novelty.

A new study, reported in Scientific Reports, on interoception, or “gut feelings” was conducted by a research team, which included John Coates, a former derivatives trader who now works as a neuroscientist. Coates attests that interoceptive sensations not only stem from the stomach but the heart, lungs, bladder, bowels, skin and other organs as well. Based on his findings, he surmised that those who are attuned to sensing these body sensations are best able to “survive and thrive.”

Although this conclusion came from an isolated lab study which focuses on male traders in the financial market, it supports a larger body of research that asserts that “subtle physiological changes can aid people in making difficult or tough decisions.”

Min Zhuo, a professor and neuroscientist in the Neuroscience Department at University of Toronto, supports Coates’ findings. “These individuals with keen gut instincts are more aware of their environmental surroundings,” says Zuo. “As a result, they are primed to generate specific responses before anything bad or negative can occur. Think of it as a training of the mind and body to react appropriately to situations.”

According to Zhuo, the brain is an intricately wired organ that is sensitive to anxiety. The reason we feel sensations in other organs of our body is because we are actually receiving signals from our nervous system: our brain, spinal cord, and nerves. When we receive external stimuli, the nervous system transmits these impulses to our organs.

If our bodies are sending these signals to us, how do we harness that power in terms of making crucial, time-sensitive decisions in our lives? Zhuo says that “super-powered” individuals are actually able to “tame” these responses. They are not overwhelmed by their anxiety. They have an acute awareness of external stimuli and are able to take a moment and internally acknowledge what is going on—something like: “Okay, this is happening—and make better decisions. In a way, these individuals have trained themselves to subvert anxiety and use it to their advantage.

Zhuo observes that the general populace is overloaded by their anxiety. Typically, they complain or give up. However, he says, there is hope. “Our brains are highly plastic. We can train our minds to have an awareness of self and stabilize emotional volatility.”
He advises the following: “When you are conscious, aware of yourself and surroundings, take a moment and write down some simple rules to govern yourself by. That way, when you find yourself at an emotional high, you’re able to calm down and follow your own guidelines.”

Application of this practice is invaluable in the following sample situations:

Student and Professional Exams

“For questions you may not initially know the answers to, gut reactions may help with the recall of your original memory (your studies),” Zhou says. The sensation may save you time and prevent you from second guessing your answers.

Financial Investments

Professor Zhou states that since playing the market is so unpredictable, gut reactions are more important. Because: “The stock market is mostly 50/50 in terms of win or loss.”

Love and Relationships

Gut feelings are more instinctual in applications pertaining to more emotional situations. Zhou adds: “They are an accurate indicator as to whether you sense this person is right for you or not. In fact you can feel good and bad gut feelings that will direct your decision-making about the person you’re on a date with.”

Playing Sports and Strategy Games

Gut sensations are perfect in situations that involve motor functions and plenty of adrenaline. Zhou says that being attuned to those reactions will assist you to know when to push your limits and when to restrain yourself.

“I had a gut feeling to move to Canada—precisely Toronto—many years ago,” Zhuo says in the way of a personal anecdote. “I found that this sensation was a positive one. In our daily lives, our decisions are mostly based on previous knowledge and environment. Gut feelings can be more novel, which is not necessarily bad. In fact, it can be a depiction of our raw selves in terms of what we need or want.”

Although this all seems like sound and obvious advice, Zhuo stresses that it can be easy to fall into a “mindtrap,” especially for those who have worked at the same occupation or job for numerous years.

“The brain adapts to situations, for better or worse,” he says. “If you’re in a comfortable state, it’s easy to become complacent. It is why some people are unable to move out of certain circles and ways of living. So when the gut reaction kicks in, some listen and take action. But many don’t. For most people, the gut feeling is instant and novel. As a result, most people are not ready to listen to it and take action. They would rather stay in their sound routines simply because it has been proven to be safe, time and again.”

Image: Dobi, CC-BY

Tiffany Leigh is a Toronto-based food, travel, and science writer.

Also in Science