“Trust Your Gut” : How Wise is It?

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?” Though the irony isn’t lost on me, what we call “our gut” is actually an automated physical response to some emotional, yet subconscious judgment. And, just as any emotion, it can be valid or invalid.

Of course the term is a metaphor for 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.” Another term could be, “I 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 (or what you think others say), what you believe God tells you, etc., etc. But the inescapable fact is that everything is based on some kind of reasoning, at least implicitly. Everything you conclude, decide 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, thought and facts on that implicit logic, or to instead just “go with your gut.”

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 more likely 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.” Why live that way?

It’s not automatically and always wrong to consider your gut.  But my recommendation is to not stop there. Expose what your gut tells you to facts and reason. 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. My fan in the Delaware Wave is right: Sometimes there’s a physiological response associated with your gut or instinctual reaction. It’s both your body 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 into the thought and reasoning that can yield a natural, earned and infinitely safer “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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