Why Trust Your Gut?

Why do we call it a gut feeling anyway? Probably because fear and anxiety are often felt in the stomach… knots, butterflies, nausea. And usually what we call a gut feeling is a sense that something is off or wrong about a situation, which causes at least some anxiety in one’s gut.

diagram of human torso/gut

We may feel it in our gut, but our ‘gut feelings’ don’t originate there.

But these gut feelings don’t originate in the gut. They originate in a tiny little section within a slightly larger section of the brain called the basal ganglia (I just threw that in there so you’d be impressed that I know the parts of the brain 😀 )

This little mechanism alerts us when something is out of kilter in our environment. For lack of a better term, I will call it the alert signal.



PET scan of a brain

A brain on high alert! This is where gut feelings really originate.

The most common example of the alert signal is that nagging feeling that we’ve forgotten something. This is, btw, one of the things that goes wrong in people with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Their alert signal gets stuck in the ‘on’ position, so they almost always feel like something’s wrong. Then their mind goes looking for something wrong when there isn’t a real problem.

But unless you have OCD, when the alert signal kicks in, there is something wrong. It might be something as trivial as that item you thought about taking with you, and then the thought slipped out of your conscious awareness. But some part of your brain is remembering it and trying to say, “Hey, you meant to take that thingamajig with you!”

Or it may be something that your brain has picked up on unconsciously that indicates danger.

We like to think of our brains as this open container. Sure there’s information stored away in other compartments but what we’re actively thinking about is all front and center, right?

Wrong. There are parts of our brain that are constantly processing, interpreting, analyzing, emoting, etc. outside of our conscious awareness.

large boulder in road

rockfall on a mountainous road  (photo by Swen Dirk, Wien, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Suppose you are driving along a road in the mountains and you get a gut feeling that something’s wrong, but it’s a beautiful sunshiny day so you consciously decide your gut is nuts and ignore the signal. However, a part of your brain (most likely the right hemisphere of the cerebral cortex) has registered a flicker of movement out of the corner of your eye and it has signaled another part of your brain (the amygdala, where fear and anger originate). That part is now screaming “Danger, danger!” at that little alert gizmo in the basal ganglia.

All this has happened way too fast for your conscious mind to process what is going on. By the time it does, you are already squashed like a bug under a rockfall.

Another example:  you are out on a first date. The guy (or gal) is quite charming and attentive and you’re consciously thinking, “Hmm, he (she) just might be a keeper.” But you’re getting this gut feeling that something is off. (Okay, I’m just gonna use the male pronoun from now on; too awkward otherwise, but don’t take it personally, guys.)

LISTEN UP! A part of your brain has noticed that he has a funny little twitch in his right eyebrow every time he says something nice, or that his tone is a little flat, even though his words are what you want to hear. That part of your brain triggers the alert signal. “Beware! This guy’s a lying creep!”

You start to feel like something is off, and you’re getting a little queasy. Don’t dismiss that as you ate some bad fish, or worse yet, mistake the butterflies in your stomach as excitement or love. (Ick!) Listen to your gut!

Now, I’m not suggesting you jump up, fling your drink in his face and stomp out of the restaurant, but be on guard. Get to know him a WHOLE LOT better before you let him into your house, much less into your heart. And don’t try to talk yourself into dismissing the gut feeling. You are having it for a reason. Until you identify that reason, be careful.

Think of that alert signal as your dog. My dog barks at anything that gets within twenty feet of my house. It may be the postman delivering a package to my front step, a cat that has had the audacity to invade our backyard or someone trying to break into the house. But it is always something. It’s her job to alert me that something is coming into our territory. It’s my job to determine what it is and whether or not it’s a big deal.

That niggling little gut feeling is your barking dog. Listen to it, figure out what it’s trying to tell you, just in case it’s someone trying to break into your house.

Have there been times when you’ve listen to your gut and it’s saved you from grief? Or other times you didn’t listen and wished you had?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week,  usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

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  • Reply
    K.B. Owen
    July 30, 2013 at 10:52 am

    What a fab topic, Kass! It makes a lot of sense, and so fascinating. I remember one time when I was Christmas shopping in Boston, and it was dark as I was heading back to my car, arms full of bags. For a woman, one’s senses are already heightened under those circumstances, but my attention was distracted briefly along the sidewalk as I adjusted my grip on heavy bags.

    And then I got that gut feeling, as I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. I don’t know what it was about that particular movement – the streets were full of people who were all moving about – but I whipped my head around to my left and slightly behind me, and there was a man, taking a step toward me. When we locked eyes, he oh-so-casually took a step back, leaning once again along a storefront wall by the sidewalk, and looking away. I’m convinced that his intention was to grab my purse and whatever bags he could and take off (as I mentioned, there were a lot of people around, so I don’t think he would have tried anything else). But once he saw that I was alert to him, he changed his mind. He wanted a distracted female as victim, not an alert woman looking him right in the eye.

    You can bet I didn’t waste any time hustling to my car and locking the doors. Whew!

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      July 30, 2013 at 11:00 am

      Good for you, Kathy, that you were that alert and immediately responded to that gut feeling. If you’d hesitated even a second, your purse would have been history for sure.

  • Reply
    Amy Shojai, CABC
    July 30, 2013 at 12:31 pm

    Love this! Too often we ignore that “feeling.” I am soooo going to share this!

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      July 30, 2013 at 2:38 pm

      Aw, thanks, Amy! Glad you liked it, and thanks for spreading the word.

  • Reply
    Catie Rhodes
    July 30, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    Great post, and I agree completely with everything you’ve said.

    I can’t think of any particular time I’ve sensed impending danger.

    However…I often know what people are going to do or what their motives are, and I’m not psychic. It’s just that people give off little cues about who they are and what they’re about. I can’t always articulate what I know, but, occasionally, I do know some weird stuff.

    Sometimes I “know in my gut” that is something is a good or a bad idea. Like joining misterio press. My gut told me “do it,” and I did. Y’all have turned out to be a wonderful source of support and information. 🙂

    When we got Cosmo (our young Pomeranian), my gut told me to paper train him. I did it without knowing quite why. I have never been so happy I did something. It was the right thing for us. But I didn’t quite know that while I was doing it.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      July 30, 2013 at 2:32 pm

      You have been a wonderful addition to our little group, Catie! We are so glad your gut said to join us.

      What a great talent to have, to be able to read people so well, especially for a writer. I can do that too but usually only when I’ve got my therapist hat on, which I don’t wear all that often anymore since I’m retired. I’m afraid a lot of stuff goes right by me now. 🙁

      And thanks for bringing up another great example of listening to one’s gut–paying attention to one’s emotional reactions when making a decision, to get a sense of what feels ‘right’ for you.

  • Reply
    Eden Mabee
    July 30, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    I so love these posts you make, Kassandra. I think every one of them has inspired me in one manner or another. Thank you.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      July 30, 2013 at 4:31 pm

      You just made my day, Eden! 😀

  • Reply
    Kim Terry
    July 30, 2013 at 3:31 pm

    Just yesterday, I was about to back out of the driveway and head out to my evening class when I got that “lightweight” feeling on my face and realized I’d forgotten to put on my glasses. Driving even a short distance home would have been really dicey without them.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      July 30, 2013 at 4:36 pm

      “That ‘lightweight’ feeling on my face.” LOL Love that line, Kim!

      All too often when I get the “I’m forgetting something” feeling, it is my glasses. I can see just well enough without them to make it to the car, but when I look down the street and my neighbors’ mailboxes are all fuzzy…

  • Reply
    Shannon Esposito
    July 30, 2013 at 3:43 pm

    Great info! Well, I don’t have OCD, but I do walk around all the time saying, “I feel like I’m forgetting something.” And usually I am…lol! I had an incident walking out of the mall, too, one night. I had a couple guys follow me out and I just got that butterfly feeling. I turned around and went back in and found another older guy to walk me out and sure enough, those guys were just hanging outside the door. Not sure if anything would have happened, but glad I didn’t have to find out.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      July 30, 2013 at 4:38 pm

      Yeah, if they were back hanging by the door, they were definitely waiting for some easy prey. Good for you that you listened to your gut and went back inside!

      Btw, that “I’ve forgotten something” feeling does come more often with age, just sayin’. 😉

  • Reply
    Kirsten Weiss
    July 30, 2013 at 8:34 pm

    Basil ganglia? I AM impressed! Now how can I throw that term around…

    • Reply
      K.B. Owen
      July 30, 2013 at 8:45 pm

      LOL, Kirsten, I don’t think any herbs were involved… 😉

      • Reply
        Kassandra Lamb
        July 30, 2013 at 9:54 pm

        LOL You had me nervous for a minute there. I had to go back and check that I spelled it right. 🙂

        It sounds fancy but “ganglia” just means a bunch of nerve cells and “basal” means “at the base” as in at the bottom of the front section of the cerebral cortex, where motor movement is controlled and also where higher reasoning takes place.

        Which is probably a whole lot more than you really wanted to know. Sorry, I’m a brain trivia junkie.

  • Reply
    Karen McFarland
    July 31, 2013 at 12:52 am

    Your genius inspires me Kassandra. Yes, I am impressed with your knowledge and the use of those big brain words. lol. No seriously, I think we all get that little feeling that something is off in our subconscious. Well, unless, as you said, you have a disorder of some kind. To me, it acts as a safety mechanism, as a warning signal. Sometimes it goes off louder than other times. But either way, we still need to listen to it. Enjoyed you post as always! 🙂

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      July 31, 2013 at 1:34 am

      LOL I’m not sure I’d go so far as to use the word ‘genius,’ Karen. 🙂

      But the alert signal is most definitely a safety mechanism and one vital to our species’ survival. Just think, if our cave-person ancestors hadn’t listen to that little niggly feeling that there was something off when the forest became unnaturally quiet, they would have all been eaten by bears and saber-toothed tigers, and we wouldn’t be here.

  • Reply
    Nancy Wood
    August 1, 2013 at 11:30 am

    Great post! You blog on the most interesting topics. I love the image of thinking of your gut feeling as your barking dog. Makes total sense. Thank you!

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      August 1, 2013 at 11:37 am

      You are very welcome, Nancy! I just thought of the barking dog analogy when I was writing the post. Wish I’d thought of it years ago to use with clients.

      So glad you enjoy my posts! 🙂

  • Reply
    Debra Kristi
    August 13, 2013 at 4:41 am

    If I didn’t comment on FB when you originally posted this, I meant to. Great piece. It’s interesting how often I find myself listening to my gut. Crazy as it may sound, I sometimes turn to my gut in search of that special feeling before making my final decision – if that makes sense.

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