Understanding intuition

20 November 2019

Interview with 

Valerie van Mulukom, Coventry University

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We've probably all had one, but what do we mean by "gut feelings" in an intuitive sense? What is intuition, and why do we have it? Katie Haylor firstly asked the Naked Scientists office for their experiences, and then she quizzed Valerie van Mulukom from Coventry University...

Nadeem - If I'm driving to work and I think there's gonna be traffic in one direction and not traffic in another direction, I'll find that my gut feeling, it’ll tell me to go exactly the opposite direction and I'll go with that and it'll be correct. And I think my gut is picking up on things subconsciously.

Katie - Have you ever listened to your gut to your detriment?

Nadeem - Yeah, sure, especially as a teenager.

Katie - I love how you’re not gonna elaborate!

Amalia - I mainly rely quite a lot on my gut feeling when it comes to determining whether a situation is safe, as a woman. It happens with people, when it feels a bit aggressive or just unpredictable, then I think that's when my gut says ‘oh, this might be dangerous, you don't know how this will go’, so I go away.

Phil - I associate gut feelings with anxiety. Because that's where I think at least for me anxiety manifests butterflies in your stomach contraction, tightening, feeling like a little nauseous [sic].

Adam - So my biggest going-with-my-gut moment was when I proposed.

Phil - That's a good one.

Adam - So I had this big intricate proposal planned and then that little voice of my gut went ‘you could just do it now. You know, you could just propose tonight, just do it’. And there was about 15 minutes where my wife thought there was something desperately wrong with me, because she could see this internal struggle playing out on my face. But eventually the gut feeling won, I ran home, just grabbed the ring and went ‘do you wanna get married?’.

Katie - I assume she said "yes"?

Adam - Yes. Thankfully she did, in the longest three seconds of my entire life between asking and her saying yes..

Adam - Well as you can see, going with your gut has been pretty beneficial from where I'm standing, but thanks as well to Nadeem, Amalia and Phil. Well, what exactly are the so-called “gut feelings” they were talking about? Katie called up neuroscientist Valerie Van Mulukom, from Coventry University, to find out. Valerie told Katie that as the brain makes sense of the world, actually a lot of processing happens out of our conscious awareness and only a relatively small amount makes its way into our consciousness.

Valerie -  If something really important happens but it doesn't reach our conscious awareness, this gives you sort of emotional response or a feeling of salience, something that we have to pay attention to. That is then translated as a gut feeling in our conscious awareness. So, it's almost as if some of this automatic subconscious processing that is happening just manages to catch your attention in your conscious awareness, if that makes sense.

Katie - There seems to be a bit of a spooky, mystical, uncanny, element to gut feelings. Do we know much about what these signals actually are?

Valerie - I think that the mystic aspect of intuition is that we don't know where it comes from. Normally we feel like we're in control, and when we suddenly are either reminded or we learn that sometimes, well actually lots of the processing of the brain happens not in our conscious awareness, that is a bit of an eerie feeling, it feels like we're not that much in control.

Katie - How much do we know about the neuroscience of gut feelings? Has anyone stuck people in a brain scanner and encouraged them to have gut feelings to see what's actually happening?

Valerie - Not that I'm aware of, because it's kind of hard to induce real strong gut feelings. They just come to us when we don't expect them, right. But what they have done is skin conductance testing. They put sensors on the palm of your hand and they test how much you're sweating, and they have this card game. So participants came into a lab, they had to turn over cards from one stack and they could switch between them. If you got a certain type of card, then you got a reward. And if you didn't get that card you could get punished. And the idea was to get as much money as possible, and then they would get the money after the end of the experiment. It was rigged, obviously. So there were stacks that progressively got worse, and there were stacks that progressively got better. And before people were conscious of it, their hands would start sweating as they would reach for the bad stack. So, basically your brain already knew that this was the bad stack but it hasn't quite reached your conscious awareness. So I think that might be the closest to what we've got so far, because it's really hard to measure intuition considering that it isn't in our conscious awareness.

Katie - People often say "you need to listen to your gut. What is your gut telling you if you're in a difficult sort of decision-making scenario?". I find this really difficult to actually know what my "gut" is saying. Do you have any tips to help people actually hone in and listen?

Valerie - Maybe the simplest way is to not immediately dismiss it. There's been a study that I know of where they simply told people to keep a journal every time during the week where their intuition led to a good outcome. And just doing this exercise helped them tune into their intuition. So, just paying attention. But then, I don't want to stress this too much because you can also have bad intuition. I wouldn't encourage anyone to blindly follow their intuition. Our brain is very biased. The brain has evolved to have lots of shortcuts, right. We have biases like cognitive dissonance bias, so if we read something that we agree with we're more likely to pick it up and we tend to ignore things that we don't agree with. This is why it is important to not just rely on your gut feelings and intuition, because it is an evolutionarily old system, it’s biased. This is why we need critical thinking as well and science.

Katie - Can you tell us a little bit about the comparison with analytical thinking?

Valerie - It's not "either or". So, there is a lot of research in psychology where they try to say whether people are intuitive thinkers or analytical or rational thinkers, and I think that's just a little bit wrong because we definitely all use both. Even if we don't know it. We need both, right? But I have a feeling that with these past century or so, maybe even since the Enlightenment, we're starting to think of emotions as these fallible things that we should do away with, as I myself used to think, and I think that is wrong too. So if we could just see emotions for what they are - which is useful ways of your body telling you to pay attention to something - rather than thinking of whimsical things that should be ignored. Yes. Pay attention to your gut feelings, but don't just jump into them without critical thinking.

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