What It Really Means to “Trust Your Gut”

A reader asks: “Trust your gut.” What the heck does that even mean? People seem to be saying this more and more. Does my gut have a brain?

The way I think of this is your gut is an automated physical response to some emotional value judgment subconsciously in your brain. Just as any emotion can be valid or invalid, wouldn’t the same go for your gut?

I think people are implying that somehow magically your brain is telling you what to do subconsciously.  But what if your automated response is built upon faulty facts and reality; then wouldn’t your gut be untrustworthy?

Dr. Hurd’s reply: When people say, “I trust my gut,” it’s usually a metaphor. They’re not talking about their physiology. They don’t literally mean their stomachs, in most cases. They’re talking about their unreasoned or “pre-reasoned” impressions, impulses or conclusions. Quite often, the translation for “trust my gut” is something like: “I don’t know the answer. But I’ll go with what I feel.” It’s very similar to the use of the term “trust my instincts.”

Such an approach overlooks two crucial areas: reality and reasoning. Reality always exists, no matter what we think, analyze, and no matter what our “gut” or instincts tell us. Reasoning is similarly inescapable. It’s not that you have to reason. You are free to go by gut, impulse, what others say, what you think others say, what you believe God tells you, and all kinds of other things. The inescapable part? Everything is based on some kind of reasoning, at least implicitly. Everything you conclude, decide to go with or act upon has some sort of premise and some kind of logic — however convoluted, contradictory or confusing — bundled up within it. Your choice? To shine the light of reason and thought on that implicit logic, or to instead “go with your gut.”

I know that some people will say, “But my gut instincts have served me well. They have a good track record.” My reaction to that is: Good for you. But that just means you got lucky. Or that means you have good subconscious premises and good implicit, automatized reasoning. But why leave everything to your subconscious? That would be like driving your car while reading your texts half the time and saying, “Well, I’ve never had a car accident.” Don’t you think it’s a matter of time? And why live that way?

It’s not automatically and always wrong to consider your “gut.” But my recommendation is not to stop there. Shine the light of reason on what your gut tells you. Consider all the relevant facts and think logically about them. Don’t use reason, facts and logic to suppress your gut; instead, use reason, logic and facts to work with it, test it and make the best conclusion you can about what’s true and right.

The reader is correct. Sometimes there’s a physiological response associated with your gut or instinctual reaction. It’s both your body’s and subconscious mind’s way of saying, “Great! Do it!” or “Stop! Go another way!” Listen to these signals, but don’t follow them blindly.

Human beings spend a lot of time looking for shortcuts to happiness. Substance abuse or other addiction/excessive behaviors are attempts at shortcuts. They’re ways to try and feel good without having to put the necessary thought, effort and consideration in over time to yield a natural, earned and rationally sustainable “high.”

The quest for shortcuts to happiness includes shortcuts to knowledge. If we could only have knowledge easily and automatically, conveyed through our “guts,” then life would somehow be simpler. Unfortunately, these attempts to short-circuit or bypass reasoning go against the form of cognition our survival, self-esteem and basic happiness requires. We indulge it at our own peril, and sooner or later we pay the price.


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