My gut tells me my gut can’t be trusted

Thom writes we should be thinking with our brains not our guts

My gut tells me not to trust my gut.

We humans are a credulous lot, often governed by our emotions rather than our capacity to reason. In fact, there is an entire industry that has grown out of the concept of “emotional intelligence” in recent years.

My gut tells me this is dangerous. Just look at the chaos wrought by one particular orange-skinned leader of a powerful nation, who famously thinks with his gut.

There is a scientific foundation for thinking with our guts, though. Neurons, the “wires” that allow for the thinking function in our brains, are also found throughout our guts, or more accurately, throughout our enteric nervous system, the network of neurons that governs the function of our gastrointestinal tracts. The enteric nervous system has the second highest concentration of neurons in the human body. This is why we often experience situations as emotional tension in our stomachs.

Men are often accused of thinking with another part of their bodies. There are no neurons down there, but there is a connection through interneurons, which are kind of like extension cords. But enough about that.

There is undoubtedly some evolutionary gut-thinking. If you’re a caveman out on a hunt and something doesn’t feel right, it’s probably best to avoid it.

Hence the old saying “trust your gut.”

And trust is what it all comes down to. Gut-thinking is primal and therefore we tend to think of our emotions as being hard-wired.

Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychology professor at Northeastern University, argues that emotions are not hardwired, but learned. She bases this not on a gut feeling, but on years of research, evidence and expertise.

Our initial experience with trust is based on our reliance as babies and young children on adults to keep us alive. We soon learn, however, that even our parents cannot be completely trusted—spoiler alert for any precocious six-year-olds who may be reading this—when we find out Santa Claus is not real.

Babies are not skeptical or credulous by nature, we are trained to trust and distrust, initially by our parents, or parental surrogates, and later by life itself. For each of us, all of that gets rolled up into a personal narrative that guides our reactions to everything.

I favour Professor Barret’s conclusions, not because I have examined all the research, but because I trust her expertise. I trust her expertise largely because it fits my personal narrative. My gut tells me she is right.

We tend to trust our guts, I think, because we have little choice. The sheer vastness of cumulative human knowledge combined with how busy most of us are just living our lives, makes it virtually impossible to know much of anything with great certainty.

Fortunately, we also have brains. My brain tells me that my gut is often wrong.

My brain tells me I should demand more proof of the nature versus nurture regarding emotional intelligence.

My brain tells me that my gut is not a decision-making tool, but a starting point for further investigation.

My brain tells me that regardless of how my gut feels about something, it could be wrong.

Millennia ago, it was common knowledge the Earth was flat and the sun revolved around us. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, we trusted our observations that the ground we were standing on is stationary and that if you looked out across great distances, aside from natural gradations of geography, it certainly appeared to be flat. And the sun still appears to be moving around us.

We now know the Earth is round—or to be accurate an oblong spheroid—that revolves around the sun and the reason it feels stationary and looks flat is because, well, physics.

The spherical Earth did not become fact because ancient Greek philosophers had a gut feeling flat Earth observations were wrong. It became fact because subsequent technological advancements made it possible for scientists and explorers to practically demonstrate that now almost universally-accepted reality.

I am not saying we should ignore our guts completely, but if we are blindly following our guts, we are probably not using our brains, which, by the way, has 200 times the number of neurons as the enteric nervous system.

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