Gut Check: How Intuition Drives Our Choices

Nov 21, 2023

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

 Follow your instincts. That’s where true wisdom manifests itself.

-Oprah Winfrey

When faced with difficult choices, we often talk about going with our gut. That churning, unsettled feeling in our stomachs acts like an inner voice, steering us toward or away from a particular path. Why do we experience these physical sensations? Should we listen to them when making major life decisions?

As an expert in somatic psychology , I’ve come to believe that gut feelings serve an evolutionary purpose. They are sensations sent from the emotional centers of the brain to warn or protect us from potential threats. Our ancestors relied on these intuitive signals to react quickly under pressure and survive in harsh conditions.

Imagine a member of a hunting party alone in the wilderness. Suddenly, he feels the hairs on his neck stand up as a low growl emits from a nearby thicket. His heart races uncontrollably, and his muscles tighten. Something deep in his brain reads these sensations, connects them to past memories, and sends an urgent message: lion—run! He takes off just as a mountain lion pounces from the bushes.

In modern life, acute threats like hungry lions have faded. But our brains and bodies still generate the same warning signs and signals, now often in response to more abstract social dangers rather than immediate physical perils.

We intuitively feel distrust toward the boss quietly plotting against us or romantic rejection from a fellow student who avoids eye contact. Our somatic markers continue to serve an ancient purpose, steering us away from potentially hazardous people or situations. The skill lies in accurately interpreting those signals here in the modern world, where dangers tend to hide in conference rooms and strangers’ smiles rather than in wild forests and shadows.

When Intuition Misleads

Photo by Benjamin Davies on Unsplash 

However, intuition can also mislead us at times or make us resistant to change. Imagine you meet a friendly stranger who gives you bad vibes right away. Although your immediate gut reaction is distrust, rationally, this person has done nothing wrong. Snapping judgments based on intuition is not always wise in modern life.

We also tend to intuitively prefer the comfort of what we know over unfamiliar change, even if adapting is in our best interest. Our bodies and brains can react negatively to a new career, a move to another city, or an unexpected life transition. All these signal fear through knots in our stomachs.

Growth often requires pushing past that initial instinctive resistance , so how can we determine when to listen to our gut or override it with more logical thinking?

Emerging research on the body-brain connection reveals more about how intuitive signals take shape physically. Networks in our brain generate emotions  based on sensory inputs or memories.

For example, reflecting on a frightening past event can spark the emotion of fear. Brain regions like the insula and amygdala then facilitate a cascade of physiological changes, like muscular tightening, sweating, or racing heart rate.

We sense these reactions in the body, which in turn makes us feel even more scared. The two systems operate in a continuous feedback loop that amplifies emotional signals. Researchers call these physical sensations “somatic markers.” They mark important information to the brain carried through the body rather than words or pictures.

Learning to accurately read your body’s intuition signals takes patience and practice. But once you master it, a world of valuable guidance unlocks.

Tuning into somatic markers allows you to tap directly into emotional brain centers that detect patterns and threats long before our conscious minds. It surfaces those gut feelings before they fully form.

Imagine scanning your body on the way to a first date. Without clear reasons, you notice a slight feeling of constriction in your chest and heaviness in your limbs. Nothing too intense but a subtle downward pull. Your breathing feels less free and buoyant.

If you ignore these signals, you likely won’t consider canceling. But making a habit of routinely checking in provides an opportunity to consider them. 

In this case, what might that muted bodily sensation indicate? Perhaps you still carry pain from past dating letdowns or abusive relationships without realizing it consciously. Such emotional memories embed themselves physically if never reconciled. Although it is unfair to project it onto your date, suppressed hurts unconsciously cloud your openness and skew your perceptions.

Catching these clues early allows pivoting to self-care first. You might opt to reschedule while taking time to process old feelings, heal wounds  through journaling, or clear energy through meditation. By becoming fluent in your body’s language, you give yourself crucial lead time. Subtle messages yield advanced notice to correct course before sailing into a full-blown crisis, trauma, or relapse.

With mastery, intuition becomes your guide, not just an occasional warning alarm. With wise interpretation, it serves you rather than controls you.

When Life Calls for Logic

Photo by [email protected] on Unsplash

Rapid intuition serves us extremely well in emergency situations. We owe much of our evolutionary survival to this fight-or-flight capacity .

But day-to-day modern decisions often require overriding instinct with rational thought. Remember when you have to choose between two job offers with extensive pros and cons or decide when to exit a failing investment? These complex judgments call for slower, logical reasoning rather than impulsive reactions. 

Combining hedonic markers with rational thought leads to the wisest choices over time. Achieving this ideal balance takes mindfulness, self-awareness , and improved calibration.

Think of quick intuition and slower logical reasoning as complementary systems, each with distinct strengths. Rapid gut reactions excel at pattern matching, emotional processing, and quick judgments. Slower logic better calculates risks, constructs arguments, and deliberates over complexity.

Skillful decision-makers learn when to shift gears between the two and calibrate their outputs. For example, if your body tenses when meeting a potential business partner (indicating distrust), pause to rationally process why. Does this person actually demonstrate untrustworthy behavior, or are you transferring negative assumptions from past experiences?

Slow down and examine available facts before determining if your somatic marker offers meaningful or misleading guidance. Achieving accurate calibration between the two systems minimizes costly judgment errors while benefiting from their combined strengths.


Our guts often lead us well but can also prompt impulsive choices against our long-term interests. Similarly, pure logic fails to incorporate valuable emotional wisdom. Navigating these dueling facets of our minds remains an imperfect, lifelong art.

By better understanding the embodied nature of intuition, we can strengthen neural pathways between head and heart. Listening to somatic signals while examining them rationally refines their guidance over time. Our shared challenge is learning where to follow our guts, where to focus our minds, and where to balance the two for optimum outcomes.

The quote I opened with now rings even more true for me: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” Our bodies vibrate too, channeling intuition through nerve endings, muscle fibers, and vital organs. As we strive to make wise choices along life’s journey, interpreting their whispered wisdom notes and discordant jangles makes all the difference.

Cover photo by Midjourney

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