Recently, I have spent a great deal of time pondering the nature of what we call gut feelings. Personally, many of my decisions have been primarily guided by what I would describe as a gut feeling - but what is a gut feeling really?

I recently spoke to a woman who posed an interesting idea, that our gut feelings are a mechanism by which the universe communicates with us - an invisible hand attempting to shape our fate and our destiny. There was more that went along with the idea, but the rest was cloaked in fictional ideas based around bona fide creatures that lived within us. I don’t necessarily believe in those ideas, but I do think that the core concept is still valid.

In thinking about this some more I have been reminded of the concept of our “lizard brain” as some affectionately refer to it. Commonly, “lizard brain” refers to our more primal brain, the brain stem and associated areas. This area of the brain is commonly associated with reflexive actions that require little to no processing in the higher orders of the brain. For instance, the heart beat and respiration is largely controlled in this portion of the brain.

Evolutionarily speaking, the brain developed upwards, if you will, from the brain stem, eventually culminating in the frontal cortex that is responsible for much of the logic and reasoning us humans enjoy today.

I find it most curious that there are portions of our brain, that are very much brain in the literal sense, that we are unable to consciously tap in to. For instance, we cannot reason our heart beat down to some desired level, likewise, we cannot override the idea that we are hungry, or thirsty. This has lead me down the path of reasoning that perhaps our gut feelings have something to do with these active, but not consciously accessible portions of the brain.

The lesser brain, as I will refer to it from here on out, was what our earlier ancestors used to accomplish basic tasks. The lesser brain told them when they were hungry, it helped them move around and generally, live the life we see in most other reasonably evolved animals on earth. But there had to have been some sort of complex analysis done in this portion of the brain for our ancestors and animals to accomplish what are inherently complex tasks – intercepting prey, analyzing images provided by the eyes to locate predators, and so on. These tasks likely happen autonomously given that these creatures are not conscious in the human sense. This is all well and good in creatures that only have primitive brains, but for humans there is so much more going on, especially with the frontal cortex and the higher orders of the brain.

So then, I’ve reasoned that as humans, our lesser brains still process information much like what I have described above for animals and our ancestors. While this is no revelation in and of its self (it has been scientifically proven that this is the case), I have also posited that the lesser areas of the brain help us in processing complex situations more than we may realize.

Perhaps, what we describe as a gut feeling, is the lesser brain attempting to help us with our analysis of problems that are typically beyond its wheel house. While the frontal cortex and other higher brain orders act as a sort of central processing unit, picking apart details, perhaps the lesser brain acts as a sort of crude auditor, looking over the previously analyzed facts and drawing a more basic conclusion.

Given the separation, it would make sense that the lesser brain would communicates this information in an inherently vague and sometimes confusing way, in the form of a gut feeling.

What I find most intriguing about this idea, is that often, my gut feelings are counterintuitive. I spend a great deal of time analyzing a situation when anything more than a cursory decision is to be made, arguably, too much time. What I find curious, though, is that the conclusion I come to through my analysis is often logically sound and, objectively, a sound decision while my gut feeling is often completely the opposite.

Does this mean our lesser brains are better at processing this information? No, probably not, but then again I am not a brain scientist either. My interpretation of all of this has resulted in the idea that we should carefully consider our decisions, but not too carefully. Perhaps the over analysis that I, and probably some of you, are guilty of is clouding our judgement. Perhaps the logically sound choice isn’t the best choice? As a big fan of logic (I am a programmer after all) it pains me to suggest this, if we can’t trust logic what can we trust? But all in all, I take comfort in the idea that there is likely no “right” choice. With that in mind, we shouldn’t be afraid of taking a chance – if there is no “right” choice, logically, there can be no “wrong” choice either.