The quirky urge. A funny tingle. That little voice in your head. These are your gut feelings talking. But what are they telling you, and should you listen? Here’s how to make the most of your own innate wisdom.
A few years back, two scientists at the University of Iowa conducted an experiment in which research subjects played a game of chance with four separate card decks and stacks of play money. Each card indicated whether the player had won or lost money, and the goal for the player was to draw as many cash-delivering cards as possible. What the players didn’t know is that the decks had been rigged. Two of them had been stacked so they yielded high rewards but punishing losses, while the other two offered smaller rewards and virtually no losses. It took most players about 50 cards before they started to favor the safer decks, and about 80 cards before they could explain why they did so.
Here’s the curious part (and amateur gamblers should take note): Sensors attached to the players’ skin showed that after only 10 cards, a player’s hand would get sweaty and nervous when it reached for the risky decks. “Although the subject still had little inkling of which card piles were the most lucrative . . . [his] emotions knew which decks were dangerous,” writes Wired contributing editor Jonah Lehrer in How We Decide (Houghton Mifflin, 2009). “The subject’s feelings figured out the game first.”
Most of us have experienced the sense of knowing things before we know them, even if we can’t explain how. You hesitate at a green light and miss getting hit by a speeding truck. You decide on a whim to break your no-blind-dates policy and wind up meeting your life partner. You have a hunch that you should invest in a little online startup and it becomes Google.
If only you could tap into those insights more often, right? Turns out you can, especially if you learn to identify which signals to focus on — whether they’re sweaty palms, a funny feeling in your stomach, or a sudden and inexplicable certainty that something is up.
According to many researchers, intuition is far more material than it seems. Hope College social psychologist David Myers, PhD, explains that the intuitive right brain is almost always “reading” your surroundings, even when your conscious left brain is otherwise engaged. The body can register this information while the conscious mind remains blissfully unaware of what’s going on.’
Another theory suggests you can “feel” approaching events specifically because of your dopamine neurons. “The jitters of dopamine help keep track of reality, alerting us to those subtle patterns that we can’t consciously detect,” Lehrer notes.
This means if something in the environment is even slightly irregular — the speed of an approaching truck, the slightly unusual behavior of someone at a party — your brain squirts dopamine and you get that “weird” feeling. Whether you pay attention or not can make all the difference. You might meet your future spouse — or meet your maker. Those signals carry a lot of important information, so it’s wise to listen up.
Judith Orloff, PhD, a Los Angeles–based intuitive psychiatrist and author of Second Sight (Three Rivers Press, 2010), believes the benefits of listening to your instincts go far beyond making good on life-or-death decisions. “Living more intuitively demands that you’re in the moment,” she says, “and that makes for a more passionate life.”
But she also notes that gut instincts are far from infallible. The right brain’s skill with pattern identification can trigger suspicions of unfamiliar (but not dangerous) things, or cause you to be especially reactive to people who simply remind you of someone else.
So how do you choose which gut feelings to trust? Orloff suggests that it’s a matter of “combining the linear mind and intuition,” and striking the right balance between gut instinct and rational thinking. Once you’ve noticed an intuitive hit, she says, you can engage your rational mind to weigh your choices and decide how best to act on them.