Thinking Outside the Brain: Gut feelings and following the heart
Neurobiology and Behavior
Thinking Outside of the Brain
Contemporary scientists brand the brain as the organ responsible for thought process and decision making. While there is little scientific evidence to suggests a structure within the brain which is responsible for intuition [one which our “thinking” brain would oppose], our social history suggests otherwise. When forced with the task of making a decision, loved ones suggest we follow our minds [think rationally] or in particular cases to think with our heart, use our “intuition” or go with a “gut feeling”. What are these intangible elements to which we should follow in the path of making a choice? Does my gut have feelings? Can we separate our minds from our brain and listen to the mind? Does the heart have such neuronal connections that it can literally think for us? And lastly how will we know what path to follow?
What is intuition?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines intuition as the apparent ability to acquire knowledge without inference or the use of reason. Some experts claim intuition is a conscious act, while others believe it occurs without our awareness. For the purpose of this paper, we will examine intuition in the sense of the gut feeling that occurs in the decision making process. To clarify, intuition is separate from reason and rationality, and while we are aware of the answer that intuition may give, we are unaware, unconscious, of the process by which we came to that intuitive answer. Furthermore, intuition provides us with information which we cannot justify.
There are many other terms for intuition such as “instinct”, “heart”, or “gut feeling”. Although thinking with non-brain organs may seem a farfetched scientific concept, it is only within the last century that experiments from Golgi and Ramon y Cajal revealed neurons as the brain’s cables of communication. Furthermore, it is a fairly recent realization that the brain exists as the basis of mental functions as Aristotle believed the heart was the central organ governing intelligence . From one generation to the next the notion of following one’s gut or heart is passed down and is usually advice given in the event of a difficult choice. From this notion, it seems there is a common belief that we already know the best choice in the face of a difficult decision. Apparently it is located somewhere, perhaps in the gut or the heart. Alternatively one could use their mind and logic to come to a “rational” decision. The two processes are different. One, rational thinking, is a conscious effort requiring much thought while the other, intuition, is almost effortless.
A talk featuring Gerd Gigerenzer on intelligence of the unconscious posits intuition encompasses multiple strategies used by the unconscious mind, such as heuristics. Heuristics is the idea that intuition is governed by a strategy such that the outcome is the most important outcome. Another process is recognition, where your “intuition” decides by determining what is most familiar to you and this governs your intuition’s choice. When a group of Americans and Germans are asked whether Detroit or Milwaukee has more people, Germans got the right answer, Detroit, more often than Americans, which Gigerenzer claims is a result of Germans knowing of the city’s name. He states “It’s not because they know more, it’s because they know less” . While the speaker is primarily concerned with which process leads to the best choices it would be interesting to investigate the toddler mind. Do toddlers know more because they know less? Is intuition something that is unconsciously gained?
Evidence for Intuition located outside the brain
While Gigerenzer argues for intuition within the brain, Columbia University Researcher Michael Gershon argues the location of the “gut feeling” as present within the physical gut . The “second brain” or enteric nervous system serves to manage the digestive process using neurotransmitters and neurons. As ninety five percent of serotonin neurotransmitters are located within the gut, it is clear that feelings can literally come from the gut. The link between stress and the gut is also well characterized. While this does not provide evidence for a location for intuition, the possibility that the gut feels is evidence which may support the idea of a location of intuition. Furthermore it is possible that the gut’s nervous system provides more than technical reflex support to the brain. Unlocking these questions may lead to new developments in understanding intuition  . All this evidence suggests it may be possible that we literally have inputs stemming from these senses that give us this “gut feeling” or that allow us to “think with our heart” in making decisions.
The All Encompassing Brain View
The next logical question is whether the separation of the notions of rational and intuitive thinking is possible or in actuality do we use all “brains” as a combination to make decisions? Antonio Damasio argues decisions are made by the integration of inputs where patterns of neuronal activity inform our decisions . He argues our emotions inform our rational thoughts to make the final decision and claims humans are incapable of acting purely on rationality. While this all-encompassing model may be appeasing to the unquestioning mind, ultimately it leaves many questions unanswered. Recent studies show the brain is active during periods of rest. This constant brain activity is coined ‘Dark Energy’ in the brain. Sixty to eighty percent of the all energy used by the brain is not in response to any external event. Perhaps this unconscious use of energy is where intuition is  . If intuition is our ability to acquire knowledge without our knowing and reasonable justification perhaps intuition is stored in the sixty to eighty percent of energy of which we are unaware.
Ultimately, the path to discovering the true nature of intuition, its biological location and composition is important to the investigation of how we make decisions. Unfortunately there is no clear evidence to suggest intuition is inside or outside of the brain. There is evidence that various organs have brain-like functions. Many questions surround the study of intuition such as the definition of intuition and whether one person could convey the notion of a “gut feeling” to someone who has never experienced this sensation. While it is difficult to define these terms well enough to study how intuition may play a role in decision making, ultimately the study of intuition, despite the potential locale for the sensation is necessary to fully understand the opposing thought process, we call ‘rational’ thought.