This has been playing on my mind for some time… Lets talk about our old friend Intuition!
Everyone in the world has been privy to this force—that sense of ‘just knowing’ when something is wrong or right. Instinctively choosing one path out of many available options. You may also know it as the ‘gut feeling’.
Now, two things must be addressed here.
Number one: I used the term ‘instinct’. This was not accidental. Many believe instinct and intuition to be one and the same.
This is not really the case. Instinct is a term given to a specific set of actions and reactions hardwired into the species that propagate its survival. Intuition is an action or decision arising without conscious thought. However unconscious, it is still borne from a collection of lived experiences and memories.
Abraham Maslow, famous for the creation of the Hierarchy of Needs, argued that as humans we lack the capacity for instinct, as we have the ability to override it through conscious thought. As ‘instinct’ inherently cannot be overridden, it can be argued we have lost this basic function, attributed to our increased consciousness. In short, the ability to think consciously about our actions—divining and introspecting—has lead to the death of instinct. This is not necessarily a negative thing. It simply highlights the difference between this and intuition. Something still thriving inside each and every one of us!
Number two: The so-called ‘gut feeling’… does it actually come from the gut?
This is the rabbit hole I have been diving down of late, unearthing fascinating discoveries via interesting avenues that I want to share.
Lets begin with intuition
Why is it so important? Is it fallible? How do we know?
Intuition is important because it allows us to make decisions in an instant. We do not have to sift through past data consciously to understand what choices we need to make. This feeling often directs us to answers before we’ve even registered a response consciously.
Yet many will attest to having made split second decisions that have proved disastrous. Can we say, then, that instinct can be wrong? Perhaps. Though I would hazard a guess that true instinct lacks the capacity to be bad in decision-making. It is simply whether or not we are properly in commune with our intuitive sense. Often we let high emotive responses and pre-existing ideas intercept intuitive thought. Poor decision-making may also arise in new situations. Our intuitive sense then approximates based on similar scenarios from our past. In these moments, it is valuable to take some time to understand our intuition more. In doing so, we can use both rational thought in conjunction with our ‘gut feeling’ in order to arrive at a healthy decision.
What is a ‘gut feeling’?
Whilst this term and intuition are interchangeable, it seems there is more to this relationship than is commonly thought. Research has actually shown that the gut and the brain talk to each other, and inform a lot of our emotional responses through swapping information.
In his 2016 Ted Talk, American Football player David Vobora, discusses gut feelings and the Enteric Nervous System (ENS): A collection of neurons in the intestine that can function independently of the Central Nervous System (CNS). It has been described as the ‘brain of the gut’. Both systems share over 30 identical neurotransmitters such as dopamine (the reward neurotransmitter) and serotonin (the feel good neurotransmitter), which I will come back to later. The brain and the gut then communicate with each other via the Vagus Nerve. It is fascinating to understand this connection. Whilst they provide very different functions, they work in deep symbiosis. At a very basic level, they share information that directs us to what we require in order to live.
“Both can offer information to guide action…without the ability to let one lead or have perfect harmony between the two, we impair our truest inclinations” – David Vorbora
Vobora uses this scientific standpoint to talk about his experience repairing his connection to intuition (you can see the full Ted talk here. He notes that bravery is often spoken of as a gut feeling. A feeling that might tell you to run toward an accident in order to help people, rather than freezing or running away through fear. He notes that when a person is in touch with this ‘gut’, better decisions are made.
Yet one has to foster a healthy relationship with gut feelings, and intuition. This means creating positive habits to nourish the mind and body. When we make a choice to support our own wellness, we create strong foundations through which we can harmonise.
A tale of two cities
Nutritionist Lisa Kilgour further discusses the ENS and more in her Ted Talk ‘Microbes, Mental Well & Mealtime’ She explores the notion that the Enteric Nervous System in our gut.
Through her work as a nutritionist, the link between her clients digestive issues and their mental wellness was shown again and again. Bacteria in our gut intrinsically links to our immune system, and aids our metabolism.
She notes that within “the brain of the gut” the neurons make up 90% of all our serotonin (the feel good neurotransmitter) and 50% of our dopamine production. Studies have shown that when there is an imbalance in neurotransmitters in our brain, there often will be in our gut.
It’s an ‘as above so below’ scenario.
Low levels of neurotransmitters in our brains can lead to depression. In our gut this can cause constipation and slow digestion. High levels in the brain can lead to anxiety, while in the gut creates cramping pain and diarrhoea. Bacteria formulate the basis of our serotonin and dopamine levels. The bacterium communicates with our intestinal wall to ask for the neurotransmitters to be transmitted. This means that gut wellness can actually help inform our behaviours.
Kilgour notes that if you have a diverse diet, you are more likely to have a better balance of neurotransmitters in the gut. Studies have actually shown that more diverse bacteria create more positive attributes in toddlers, such as being more engaging and enquiring with the outside world. The research is fairly new, but one just needs to take a cursory look at the various research emerging now to see how many scientists propagate this idea.
You are what you eat is the old adage. But more prudently, you feel what you eat. If you have a balanced diet, full of natural ingredients, less sugar caffeine and trans fats, not only will your body be healthier—your mind will be clearer too. With diversity, the microbiome in your gut flourishes with good bacteria. Neurotransmitters are balanced. Life improves.
As above, so below
This is fascinating as so often we focus on how the food we eat affects us physically. Often the mental effects are not as considered, beyond the energy they convey for keeping us alive. That is what keeps us reaching for the coffee and sugary drinks or snacks to get a ‘quick fix’ of energy. The lasting results are often fatigue and addiction, which affects our overall and long-term happiness.
On the subject of addiction, it is worth noting an interesting article in Psychology Today. The article outlines the ‘somatic marker theory’, in which emotional responses guide our decision-making. The theory suggests that “dysfunctional decision making patterns contributes to addiction”, which also works in reverse. It can cause a rift in our connection to emotional responses, resulting in making poor choices.
Addiction takes many forms. Drugs or alcohol are the usual suspects, but it can also lurk in the seemingly innocuous departments of social media or technology. Such addictions I have discussed before. It seems more and more apparent that when we divert our attention to such addictive exploits, we damage our ability to perceive our emotional responses in a healthy manner.
So, when it comes to better physical health, we know the steps to follow. Eating a diverse range of natural foods, drinking plenty of water. Getting enough sleep can also help aid digestion and enable better mental wellbeing. Creating a healthier relationship between the brain and the gut can actually help us with our intuitive sense as we will feel less foggy!
Yet when it comes to creating a healthy brain through action, what should we do? How should we nourish our minds?
Brene Brown has created a method through which to foster strong, healthy and, very importantly, trusting relationships. I feel that this could also be instrumental in creating trust in our own judgements and intuition.
The BRAVING method can be broken down as this:
Boundaries – Understanding and respecting where these lie, for you and for others
Reliability – Doing what you say you’re going to do
Accountability – holding you accountable in all actions and outcomes
Vault – Keeping your secrets, and being mindful of who you trust with yours
Integrity – Creating the core values central to your being. These serve as a pillar of who you are
Non-judgement – Creating space where you do not judge yourself or others, but listen & help
Generosity – In spirit, mind and heart. Being generous with others actions, even if they hurt you. Understanding that this may be an outcome but it is not an intention. When you do this you start having more open conversations rather than just reacting from your ego.
Through applying this method we can begin to heal the fractured bonds between our intuition and the conscious mind. We no longer ignore that feeling or voice that tells us instantly if something is wrong or right. Those split second decisions can be incorporated. And the beauty is; we don’t need to blindly trust our intuition. We can combine with rational thought to create a healthy environment for decision-making. We trust our intuitive senses, and make changes accordingly. The mind still performs as it should. The full gamut of emotions is present. We rationalise, sort and store information. Yet we are not fighting against what feels right and what doesn’t.
When fostering a healthier mind and body, utilising all the powers we have, we create a landscape within us where decisions arise from an even space. Not borne out of shame, greed, spite, anxiety or depression. Options and decisions are observed openly and honestly. We can bravely trust our intuition, allowing a time to ruminate on these before or after. Time permitting.
If we understand ourselves, we know what we want out of life. Then we can begin to trust our foundations and make choices that expand, rather than limit, our world.
Finally, I would like to briefly mention a study that was devised to measure intuition. In this study, students were shown dots moving around the left side of a screen, and asked to ascertain whether the dots were generally moving to the left or right. On the right was a flashing coloured square. As they were shown this screen, sometimes the coloured square would show a negative or positive image in the centre. Images were displayed in nanoseconds so as to be subliminal. The reason for this was to garner an emotional response from the subjects. What was discovered was this: When positive images were used subjects made decisions quicker, and were more confident that when shown negative images.
When stressed or feeling negative emotions, it can be harder to make decisions and trust your gut feelings. Your intuitive sense is harmed and this can lead to bad choices. Stressful situations trigger our fight or flight response, yet we can choose to override this as we are no longer governed by instinct.
This is yet more reason to practice mindfulness and meditation. We cannot remove negativity or stressors from our lives. What we can do is work to create inner harmony. Through healthier lifestyle choices, we can change our reactions to the world, adding tools to our repertoire that make decision making easier. Our evolutionary move away from instinctive behaviour has given us a greater power. If we treat our mental and physical health with care, we can foster that power to create a finer intuitive life for ourselves. Here, the symbiotic relationship between our body and mind will be strong and resilient. We cannot rely solely on our intuition, or our mental or physical health. What we can do is to stop denying its place, make better friends with ourselves, and make it all count.