When it comes to decision-making, knowledge is power. But what about knowledge that comes from an unconventional source? That twitch in your stomach each time you meet with a potential business partner. The feeling of excitement that accompanies a sudden insight into a problem. Or that nagging instinct when forced to make a difficult decision. When facts say one thing, but a little feeling or voice is shouting something else.
You know those feelings, the ones that seem to govern what you do and pop up just to try and make you stop and think.
Researchers say, our gut feelings are actually part of an elaborate protective system that prompts us to avoid certain situations. The sprawling two-way communication systems between brain and gut is 100 times larger than the surface of the skin and sends more signals to the brain than any other organ system in the body.
An article published in Physiology and led by Florida State University, claims that gut-to-brain signals are a “powerful influence on emotions, mood and decisions” and are often a response to worrisome or threatening stimuli and events.
A nerve carries top-down messages from the brain to the body as well as bottom-up messages commonly described as “gut feelings” and it is these that prompt us to evaluate a situation or avoid it altogether.
Together with James Maniscalco, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Rinaman suggests that these signals from our gastrointestinal tract can work as a red flag that actually stops us making mistakes.
This, they claim, is because the messages push us to avoid dangerous situations by cutting off the reward systems in the brain. This might explain why it feels like your gut is raising a flag whenever a new, or challenging situation makes you feel a little uneasy. And they do so in a fraction of the time it takes to consciously analyse the options.
This connection between the gut and the brain is extremely valuable and is a natural unconscious response to a current situation based on experiences in the past. It is also a great tool that we need to harness and use to help make really good choices.
But when is the right time to rely on your gut instinct or intuition?
There are many moments when you will need to make a decision and there are 4 factors that combined tell you when it’s absolutely the right time to listen to your gut feeling:
When it’s your area of expertise.
Over the course of your life and career you will have accumulated hundreds of hours of experience, a vast array of knowledge and millions of smallest hints and cues that you store away in your subconscious or your deep memory and is always readily available to be called upon. The subconscious side of your brain is always assessing and building links to the simplest smile, frown, raised eyebrow or the most detailed experience and understanding you experience through your professional learning and matching it to your memories to come up with new conclusions. This insight and data can be called upon in any situation to help you assess what is the best things to do and best of all it becomes instantly available when you need it most.
It is with this expertise that when you feel that instinct or that churn in your gut that you should listen to it and check what you are doing.
The Speed of your brain is much quicker than you think
The Brain is the ultimate library. The way in which your brain catalogues, links and stores the data you accumulate is like a super computer. Its ability to connect different memories and facts together and instant retrieval are better than Bing, Yahoo and Google combined.
Uniquely, it also has the ability to create a connection between the fact and the emotion, which cannot be matched by any other machine. It uses complex pattern matching to build conclusions between the facts and the feeling. These connections make you respond to what you see and hear. They enable you to instantly react to what is happening around you. Think about that expansive, excited, nervous or concerned feeling you get when faced with a new challenge. These feelings are not happening through emotion alone but because they are grounded by the facts you have accumulated and that your brain process subconsciously to create the feeling before you have time to analyse the situation. It is then connected to your gut through the vagus nerve that is like an information hyper highway carrying messages in directions from brain to gut and gut to brain.
The gut has its own brain cells and nervous system
Your guts are physically connected to every nerve cell in your body. The enteric nervous system (ENS) consists of a mesh-like system of neurons that governs the function of the gastrointestinal tract – that’s more than 9 metres of neurons and more than found anywhere else in the human body. The ENS receives both conscious and subconscious knowledge from the mind, and transmits its own positive or negative responses via emotional charged sensations known as “somatic markers.” Butterflies, clenching, tingling, sweating—how you respond physically to a real or hypothetical situation speaks volumes about your true feelings.
This raises the age old chicken and egg question of what comes first the brains knowledge of the gut feelings? It is worth noting that 90% of fibres in the vagus nerve carry messages from the gut to the brain and this imbalance should tell us something about the validity of the feelings and messages from the gut to the brain. It taps into the processing power of the brain before you have a chance to consciously think about it. Communication between the gut and the brain is a two-way street.
Making Decisions is critical to the health of your gut feel.
Gut feel is accumulation of the constant learning that you undertake in every moment in every day. This learning helps improve the validity of that feeling and accuracy. It might be right to use your gut feel in the middle of an emergency heart operation if you were a heart surgeon with 20 years of experience, learning and development where instinct takes over and allows for fast and accurate decision making. Remember point 1 though, as it will be less valid if you had just popped into the theatre as a plumber and likewise for a surgeon trying to fix a boiler.
There are times when it would be good to know all of the answers and outcomes and be able to compute them to give the best solution to a decision, but sometimes it is more important that we make a decision and move on. The world of work can be paralysed by analysis and over thinking when it can be much more valuable to make a decision and learn from that process. Many leadership texts refer to learning through experience and the same applies to gut feelings. If it turns out to be a good decision your gut and brain will learn and validate its process and allow you to enjoy that glow of success. If it turns out to be the wrong decision then you will equally learn from the experience, update your database, thoughts, facts and feelings so that next time your gut feelings will be improved. It is the ultimate artificial intelligence that isn’t artificial.
The key is to listen to and to train your gut
For me the critical thing is to make sure that you take heed and listen to your gut. It is a powerful expression of your experiences and feelings that lets you know when something is worth thinking about or doing. Knowing when to trust it is also something that comes with experience. Combining feeling with fact to free you from the paralysis of analysis moments will allow you to continuously improve your intuition or gut feeling. Chances are you’d make faster, more efficient and better decisions as well.