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Thinking Outside the Brain: Gut feelings and following the heart

Raven's picture

 Raven Harris

Neurobiology and Behavior

Thinking Outside of the Brain

Contemporary scientists brand the brain as the organ responsible for thought process and decision making. While there is little scientific evidence to suggests a structure within the brain which is responsible for intuition [one which our “thinking” brain would oppose], our social history suggests otherwise. When forced with the task of making a decision, loved ones suggest we follow our minds [think rationally] or in particular cases to think with our heart, use our “intuition” or go with a “gut feeling”. What are these intangible elements to which we should follow in the path of making a choice? Does my gut have feelings? Can we separate our minds from our brain and listen to the mind? Does the heart have such neuronal connections that it can literally think for us? And lastly how will we know what path to follow?

What is intuition?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines intuition as the apparent ability to acquire knowledge without inference or the use of reason. Some experts claim intuition is a conscious act, while others believe it occurs without our awareness. For the purpose of this paper, we will examine intuition in the sense of the gut feeling that occurs in the decision making process. To clarify, intuition is separate from reason and rationality, and while we are aware of the answer that intuition may give, we are unaware, unconscious, of the process by which we came to that intuitive answer.  Furthermore, intuition provides us with information which we cannot justify.

There are many other terms for intuition such as “instinct”, “heart”, or “gut feeling”. Although thinking with non-brain organs may seem a farfetched scientific concept, it is only within the last century that experiments from Golgi and Ramon y Cajal revealed neurons as the brain’s cables of communication. Furthermore, it is a fairly recent realization that the brain exists as the basis of mental functions as Aristotle believed the heart was the central organ governing intelligence [1]. From one generation to the next the notion of following one’s gut or heart is passed down and is usually advice given in the event of a difficult choice. From this notion, it seems there is a common belief that we already know the best choice in the face of a difficult decision. Apparently it is located somewhere, perhaps in the gut or the heart. Alternatively one could use their mind and logic to come to a “rational” decision. The two processes are different. One, rational thinking, is a conscious effort requiring much thought while the other, intuition, is almost effortless.  

A talk featuring Gerd Gigerenzer on intelligence of the unconscious posits intuition encompasses multiple strategies used by the unconscious mind, such as heuristics. Heuristics is the idea that intuition is governed by a strategy such that the outcome is the most important outcome. Another process is recognition, where your “intuition” decides by determining what is most familiar to you and this governs your intuition’s choice. When a group of Americans and Germans are asked whether Detroit or Milwaukee has more people, Germans got the right answer, Detroit, more often than Americans, which Gigerenzer claims is a result of Germans knowing of the city’s name. He states “It’s not because they know more, it’s because they know less” [2]. While the speaker is primarily concerned with which process leads to the best choices it would be interesting to investigate the toddler mind. Do toddlers know more because they know less? Is intuition something that is unconsciously gained?  

Evidence for Intuition located outside the brain

While Gigerenzer argues for intuition within the brain, Columbia University Researcher Michael Gershon argues the location of the “gut feeling” as present within the physical gut [3]. The “second brain” or enteric nervous system serves to manage the digestive process using neurotransmitters and neurons. As ninety five percent of serotonin neurotransmitters are located within the gut, it is clear that feelings can literally come from the gut. The link between stress and the gut is also well characterized. While this does not provide evidence for a location for intuition, the possibility that the gut feels is evidence which may support the idea of a location of intuition. Furthermore it is possible that the gut’s nervous system provides more than technical reflex support to the brain. Unlocking these questions may lead to new developments in understanding intuition [4] . All this evidence suggests it may be possible that we literally have inputs stemming from these senses that give us this “gut feeling” or that allow us to “think with our heart” in making decisions.

The All Encompassing Brain View

The next logical question is whether the separation of the notions of rational and intuitive thinking is possible or in actuality do we use all “brains” as a combination to make decisions? Antonio Damasio argues decisions are made by the integration of inputs where patterns of neuronal activity inform our decisions [5]. He argues our emotions inform our rational thoughts to make the final decision and claims humans are incapable of acting purely on rationality. While this all-encompassing model may be appeasing to the unquestioning mind, ultimately it leaves many questions unanswered. Recent studies show the brain is active during periods of rest. This constant brain activity is coined ‘Dark Energy’ in the brain. Sixty to eighty percent of the all energy used by the brain is not in response to any external event. Perhaps this unconscious use of energy is where intuition is [6] [7]. If intuition is our ability to acquire knowledge without our knowing and reasonable justification perhaps intuition is stored in the sixty to eighty percent of energy of which we are unaware.

Ultimately, the path to discovering the true nature of intuition, its biological location and composition is important to the investigation of how we make decisions. Unfortunately there is no clear evidence to suggest intuition is inside or outside of the brain. There is evidence that various organs have brain-like functions. Many questions surround the study of intuition such as the definition of intuition and whether one person could convey the notion of a “gut feeling” to someone who has never experienced this sensation. While it is difficult to define these terms well enough to study how intuition may play a role in decision making, ultimately the study of intuition, despite the potential locale for the sensation is necessary to fully understand the opposing thought process, we call ‘rational’ thought.











Marvin's picture

Heart Brain, Gut Brain

There's a huge and growing body of both neuroscience evidence and behavioral modeling research evidence about the intelligence and wisdom of the neural networks or 'brains' in our heart and gut. You might like to check out the book 'mbraining' which describes the details of this evidence and models for communicating with and between these brains and aligning them. Each neural network has specific functions and core competencies it is intrinsically involved with, and these are evidenced throughout our decisions and behaviors and are often deeply involved in the process of intuition.

TS's picture

I can see your thoughts from here

I Can See Your Thoughts
From Here

The space that is between us
Is more than just empty air
For it is filled with awareness
Connected to life everywhere

Just as light moves through darkness
Our thoughts travel far and near
With the power of consciousness
Transforming shame, hate and fear

When we don't hold on
To the past that is gone
We become our own hero
And live life at Zero

Zero Point is the place
Of infinite grace
Letting go of all things
Is what gives our soul wings

There is knowledge without words
That travels from here to there
For infinite consciousness
Is a mind which we all share

Because we are connected
Your thinking is very clear
Perceiving you with my heart
I can see your thoughts from here


Paul Grobstein's picture

gut feelings and the brain

"while we are aware of the answer that intuition may give, we are unaware, unconscious, of the process by which we came to that intuitive answer.  Furthermore, intuition provides us with information which we cannot justify."

That's one of the nicest definitions of "gut feelings" I've seen.  And I too think it helps to raise some interesting issues worth thinking more about.  What it particularly makes me think about is the "I-function" and connections or lack thereof to it.  We are "unaware of the process" by which we came to an answer and can't "justify" it because the relevant information doesn't reach the I-function?  So an intuition or gut feeling involves the unconscious analyzing things, providing the results of the analysis to the "I-function" but no information about how the analysis was done?  If so, the analysis might actually happen in the brain/nervous system based on signals from lots of places, the gut included, but we refer it to the heart or gut because it doesn't "feel" like it happens in the brain?  Maybe only things involving "reason or rationality" feel like they happen in the brain?

Schmeltz's picture

Stress and the Gut

"The link between stress and the gut is also well characterized."

Wouldn't this suggest that the "gut feeling" was actually a result of signals coming from the brain, since emotions including stress are said to come from the brain? It is interesting, though, that ninety five percent of serotonin neurotransmitters are located within the gut, but does that really suggest that feelings are actually coming from the gut? These neurotransmitters could be responsbile for receiving stress messages from the brain that then induce that "gut feeling" instead of actually picking up the "gut feeling" without the brain acting as a mediator. Can feelings literally come from the gut?  Are they actually feelings in the way we think of feelings? 

Interesting paper. Raised a lot of questions for me.