Your Gut Feeling Is Real and Science Shows How to Tap Into It

Neuroscience suggests we should trust our instincts. Even the military studies it. Ever ignored a gut feeling? We all have.

Sometimes the outcome is minor, but other times, like marrying someone you knew wasn’t right for you, it can have significant impacts on your life.

When making decisions, should you listen to your gut or rely solely on logic? While society often dismisses instinct as mystical thinking, new research suggests it’s a refined form of perception worth paying attention to and designed to protect us.

Lynn's Story, The Turnaround Queen

Lynn Tilton lost her father as a teenager and saw firsthand what losing the main income provider can do to a family. She earned a scholarship to Yale for tennis, married while at Yale, got pregnant soon after graduation, and soon became a single mother. In the '80s, she launched a career on Wall Street to support her child. Financially successful but physically and mentally exhausted, she planned to retire young once she made enough money. But when she finally did, her dream changed everything. A vision came to her as an instinct that redirected her life and the lives of countless others her life would touch.

In her dream, her late father appeared and said, "This isn’t what I wanted for you."

Lynn realized she needed to make her life about more than herself and dedicate her career to ensuring others wouldn’t have to endure the suffering she and her family experienced when her father, the family’s main provider, passed away.

Lynn founded Patriarch Partners, a company that bought struggling companies businesses that consulting firms and others had completely given up on and turned them around, such as Stila Cosmetics.

By following her instinct instead of dismissing it as spiritual or irrational thinking, the Turnaround Queen, as Lynn is now known, became the owner of the largest woman-owned business in America, at one point overseeing 700,000 employees whose jobs she saved.

Lynn isn’t alone. 85% of CEOs use instinct when making decisions. And for good reason.

While most of us have had gut feelings or instincts in our lives, we often learn to ignore them as irrational. Yet research supports that instinct is a sophisticated, quick form of perception we are wired for and that can help us make better decisions.

The Science of Instinct and Why the Military Is Studying It

Staff Sergeant Martin Ritchburg was at an internet café on a military base in Iraq, talking to his wife back home when he got a strange feeling about a man who walked into the café. Ritchburg saved the lives of 17 people that day because his hunch was right, and the man had planted a bomb.

Stories like this prompted the U.S. military to study instinct and even have training programs to develop it further.

One form of instinct is highly mental: You might call it hyperawareness. Marine Corps officer Maurice Chipp Naylon, author of "The New Ministry of Truth," shared his experiences in Afghanistan. He shared that the U.S. Marine Corps combat tracker training is a way the Marine Corps has formalized the instruction of tuning into your gut. It involves becoming an intense observer. You train your perception skills for deviations from the norm in your environment. When Chipp was in Afghanistan, for example, noticing that a usually busy playground was empty would indicate a deviation from the norm and be a sign of potential danger.

Another form of instinct is more of a feeling: Neuroscientist Joseph Mikels, professor of psychology at DePaul University, studies instinct more as an emotional or gut feeling. After all, when we talk about our instinct, we often describe it as something feeling right or feeling off.

Kushal, a Wall Street trader, had just entered one of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. A guard's orders were to stay in the building. A lot was going on, and Kushal didn’t have time to think logically about what to do. He had to make a quick decision. His gut told him to run. He followed his instinct instead of the guard’s order, and he saved his life seconds before the building collapsed, something he detailed in his book On a Wing and a Prayer.

Mikels’ study suggests that in complex situations like Kushal’s, following your instincts leads to better decisions. He found this especially true for older adults whose cognitive abilities might not always be as sharp as younger people’s, showing that instinct is even more crucial with age.

Should You Always Follow Your Gut?

When I spoke with Lynn, The Turnaround Queen, about her experience with instinct for my research, she shared: "I definitely move from my instinct. But instinct without mind is like buying a plane without any propulsion. I do the research, but my decision comes from my place of knowing. You can’t stop your instinct."

Because she followed her instinct, she saved thousands of working families from succumbing to unemployment.

Joe Mikels offers good advice like Lynn’s. Given his research on instinct and how it can help you make better decisions in complex situations, he says he tries to "consult" it and consider it alongside all the other information he has.

Learning to Strengthen Your Instinct

How can you train yourself for instinct? Gut feelings or a-ha moments are more likely to come when your brain is in alpha-wave mode, meaning you are not focusing on something, nor are you so relaxed that you could fall asleep. You’re in a meditative state. Making time and space for alpha-wave moments will help you access it:

Meditation: Research shows meditation makes you more creative and intelligent. Meditation also increases your self-awareness.

Nature: Research shows you’re more likely to come up with creative insights after spending time in nature.

Downtime and Unplug: Make time to be off your devices and in a more relaxed state. Although you may feel inactive, your brain is in active problem-solving mode.

Breathe: Learn to use your breath; you can significantly reduce your stress levels and cultivate a calmer, more reflective state of mind, ready for intuitive insights.

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