We humans have two brains. The one in our head is well known and trusted. The other one is in our stomach, and is known as the enteric nervous system, or ENS. It is composed of millions of neurons lining the gastrointestinal tract, and resembles the complexity of the human brain. It can recognize feelings such as stress or excitement. These are our gut feelings or instinct – an unconscious form of intelligence.

But, how often do we actively listen to the information our gut provides us? Not very often. It is not something we are trained in. However, according to psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, roughly 50% of the decisions made at companies are gut decisions. Conscious or not.

How do we know what our instinct is?

A two-way communication exists between our gut and our brain. The ENS receives both conscious and subconscious knowledge from the mind, and complements them with its own positive or negative responses. This emerges in the form of somatic signals – clenching, tingling, sweating, faster heart beats. In other words, our physical response to a situation indicates how we might actually feel. If we can tune into these cues, it could complement our decision-making.

In one study, 18 male traders engaged in high-frequency trading, were monitored for their ability to tune into their body signals. Awareness of bodily sensations, more specifically the heart rate and the auditory tone it created, directly correlated with better performance in an uncertain decision-making environment.

More popularly, Steve Jobs has given his intuition credit for his success. In a commencement speech at Stanford University, he said “have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” It was his instinctive decision to launch iTunes and iPod — two projects that were monumental risks. Many had said it would sink Apple into a bottomless hole of development costs. However, Jobs used his technical and strategic skills to build and deliver these projects to perfection. The hunch had to be followed-up with.

Does it work every time?

Given the accolades our intuition has received, it might be tempting to make it our go-to for awareness and decisions. But that would be an oversight. Intuitive hits are successful only under certain circumstances. They offer us snap judgements. So, your gut is your friend largely when you are under pressure, and need to respond fast. Your choices have the probability of being 95% accurate then.

Remember, that the gut’s wisdom comes from pattern recognition, and is closely linked to our past experiences. From ER doctors to racecar drivers, those who make split-second decisions are unconsciously comparing external cues with a vast internal database of past experiences. Thus, in your area of expertise, your intuition can be valuable. Otherwise, it could be a gamble.

Since it is an ancient form of wisdom, listening to our gut is a worthy tool in our skillset. Curious how to strengthen it? Come back for our next post!

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