Can We Trust Our Gut Feelings?
“Every emotional experience – positive or negative – is stored in a vast database in our brain as a “videoclip of emotional moments…”
A question that I have often been asked by audiences or podcast hosts, relates to the phenomenon of our gut feelings. It is a topic that I spent a significant amount of time discussing in my first book, The Mind-Gut Connection, where I proposed a biological explanation for the frequently used link we make between intuitive decision making and events in our gut. By implicating the intricate bidirectional interactions between our brain and the gut, and the close associations between emotional states and gut function, I came up with the following hypothesis:
Every emotional experience – positive or negative – is stored in a vast database in our brain as a “videoclip of emotional moments”, and this videoclip includes both the experience as well as the associated gut reactions and gut sensations. During this process, every emotion creates a subliminal mirror image in the gut in terms of distinct patterns of contractions, sensory signals and gut microbial signals which are reported back to the brain – via the vagus nerve or through the systemic circulation – and added to the emotional videoclip, one might say as the soundtrack to the image.
“The generation of this vast database starts with the first experiences of a newborn of aversive and pleasant feeling states…”
The generation of this vast database starts with the first experiences of a newborn of aversive and pleasant feeling states – a feeling of being hungry is aversive, and one of satiation after being fed is pleasure. The encoding of these feeling states in our “personal database” is made possible by the intricate exchange of biological signals between our gut, its microbes and “interoceptive” networks in the brain. While we don’t remember these experiences from early childhood, the memories are firmly stored in our brain, together with hundreds of millions of such “emotional moments” that we experience throughout life. While many people will not be aware of these memories, many patients suffering from a hypersensitive gut, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or from anxiety disorders, can tell of decades of such experiences where negative emotional states, such as anger, worry and anxiety were associated with unpleasant gut sensations, including abdominal pain and discomfort.
“…Our brain can access almost instantaneously the most relevant answer from our emotional data base during a gut-based decision…”
In The Mind-Gut Connection, I further hypothesized that our personal database full of such recorded emotional moments, together with the associated gut feelings play an important role in the process of making intuitive decisions based on our gut feelings. Like the Google search engine being able to generally access the search results most relevant for us within milliseconds, based on the first two letters we type, our brain can access almost instantaneously the most relevant answer from our emotional data base during a gut-based decision, rather than going through the tedious, linear decision-making process that our prefrontal cortex is so good in. We may even use this mechanism to override decisions we have come up with after tedious generation of plus and minus lists, but which didn’t make intuitive sense to us.
“…Intuition is thinking that you know without knowing why you do…”
I was intrigued when I recently read a blog post by Jessica Stillman in Medium about a speech that Nobel Lauriat Daniel Kahneman gave a couple of years ago at the World Business Forum in NYC. According to Kahneman, “intuition has traditionally been defined as knowing without knowing how you know”. However, he emphasizes that a better definition — or a more precise one — would be that “intuition is thinking that you know without knowing why you do.” By this definition, the intuition could be right, or it could be wrong, he added, implying it may often not be a good idea to follow your gut feelings.
“…following our gut feelings is probably not a good idea to make decisions involving unpredictable phenomena like the stock market…”
Obviously, following our gut feelings is probably not a good idea to make decisions involving unpredictable extraneous phenomena like the stock market, the weather, or earthquakes. The same could be said about the decisions related to the COVID-19 pandemic which should be made based on scientific evidence, and not based on somebody’s gut feelings. However, anything involving personally salient issues like social interactions, friendships and marriage, career decisions, and even some life and death decisions (as the famous example of Stanislav Petrov illustrates, who saved the world from a nuclear holocaust with a gut-based decision), following the advice from your vast personal database of emotional moments is most often the right thing to do.
There are several questions related to my hypothesis which I have addressed in my book. What about the many individuals who have suffered from adverse early life events during the first years of their life and have formed many negatively biased gut feelings and emotional moments? Members of our center have reported research studies on the effect of such early adversity on brain gut interactions, most recently on the effect of such negative memories on the gut microbiome. What about the horrendous emotional experiences that millions of children in war zones and in refugee camps go through? Is their ability for intuitive decision making irreversibly compromised for the rest of their lives? What about individuals with anxiety disorders which often use a coping mechanism referred to as “catastrophizing” meaning they base their decisions on an assumption of a high likelihood of worst possible outcomes, even though there is no rational basis for this assumption?
From an evolutionary viewpoint, one could say that such negatively biased gut feelings in individuals with a history of early adversity are an adaptive mechanism that evolution has come up with as an automatic warning to protect them from future harmful events. Unfortunately, while such a mechanism may have protected our species from extinction many times during evolution, this evolutionary wisdom comes with a high price of mental and physical disorders in today’s world. Only the resilience of the human brain has prevented the toll of this early programming being even higher.
“…do the progressive changes in our gut health, in particular the interactions of our compromised gut microbiome with our gut based immune system have any influence on our gut-based decision-making process?”
And then there is the intriguing question if the progressive changes in our gut health, in particular the interactions of our compromised gut microbiome with our gut based immune system that I discuss in detail in The Gut-Immune Connection are having any influence on our gut-based decision-making process. Even though it is plausible that the altered gut signals that are being encoded in our data base of emotional moments may influence the “search results” when we make a gut-based decision, little is known about any concrete consequences of these changes.
So, can we trust our gut feelings in everyday decision making? My view is that when making personally salient decisions, the answer is a definite yes. If you are looking for a simple solution to predict the stock market or the weather, or if you should get the COVID-19 vaccine, intuition is not the way to go. Coming back to Kahneman’s talk at the World Economic Forum, here are the 3 questions he suggests asking yourself to find out if you can trust your intuitions:
- What areas of life have sufficient regularity for our brains to develop accurate intuitions?
- Have you had a lot of practice in observing environments with some level of pattern and regularity?
- Have you trained your intuition by finding out immediately if you got it right or wrong?
Other than paying any attention to the prominent role of the gut in his recommendations, Kahneman’s advice pretty much fits my own view of the issue.
If somebody has been unfortunate to have experienced negative programming of their gut-based decision-making process, and automatically gets it wrong every time they make a gut-based decision, they may require therapeutic interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy or training in mindfulness practice as so eloquently expressed in Amanda Gilbert’s post (See Amanda’s new book here). These therapeutic interventions aim at minimizing or abolishing the negative bias out of gut-based decision making and greatly improve their accuracy.
Dr. Emeran Mayer is a Distinguished Research Professor in the Departments of Medicine, Physiology and Psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the Executive Director of the G. Oppenheimer Center for Neurobiology of Stress and Resilience at UCLA.