A sixth sense, hunch, or gut feeling: Whatever you choose to call it, the sudden flash of insight from deep within can inspire plenty of faith.
The old saying “trust you gut” refers to trusting these feelings of intuition, often as a way to stay true to yourself.
Following your instinct can certainly direct you toward the best path for you. And yet, you might wonder whether you should put so much trust in a feeling, an instinct you can’t explain.
Wouldn’t sticking to logic and reason help you make better decisions?
Not always. Science suggests intuition can be a valuable tool in some circumstances.
It seems those gut feelings do mean something, and they can often help you make good choices.
Ever experienced a nagging feeling of unease about a situation? Suddenly felt suspicious about someone you just met? You can’t explain your feelings logically, but you know something isn’t quite right.
Or maybe a rush of affirmation or calm floods you after a tough decision, convincing you that you’re doing the right thing.
Gut feelings can evoke a range of sensations, some not unlike the physical feelings associated with anxiety. Other, more positive sensations might seem to confirm your choice.
Some people describe gut feelings as a small internal voice, but you’ll often “hear” your gut talking to you in other ways.
These feelings tend to come on suddenly, though they aren’t always strong or overwhelming.
You might experience them as a faint whisper or the barest sense of uneasiness, but they could also feel so strong, you can’t imagine ignoring them.
If it seems like your brain is encouraging you to take notice of these feelings, well, you’re not far from the mark.
Though gut feelings often seem to come out of nowhere, they aren’t random. They don’t actually originate in your gut, either.
The gut-brain connection makes it possible for emotional experiences to register as gastrointestinal distress. When you feel anxious, fearful, or certain that something’s wrong, you might experience stomach twinges, pain, or nausea. That’s where the name “gut feeling” comes from.
Experts have come up with a few potential explanations for these feelings.
Normal brain processes
As you go about your day, your brain collects and processes sensory data from your environment. You’re perfectly aware of some of this information.
For example, if you notice two people shouting and pushing each other outside a store just ahead, you’ll probably cross the street. But you wouldn’t say your gut told you to move, since you made a reasoned decision based on available information.
Your brain carries out these processes automatically to help prepare you for any situation that might come up.
Since these processes run in the “background,” you may not always realize what you’re observing or what it means.
What if you suddenly feel a strong urge to cross the street? There’s no obvious reason behind your impulse, but you can’t ignore it, or the tingling at the back of your neck.
A few seconds after you cross, the sign on the building ahead comes crashing down, right where you would have been walking. You stare in disbelief, heart pounding. How did you know that would happen?
This flash of intuition probably doesn’t relate to any mystical sixth sense. It’s more likely that as you walked, you made some unconscious observations.
Maybe one corner of the sign hung loose, wavering in the wind and slapping against the building. Perhaps other pedestrians noticed and stepped out of the way, and you followed without realizing it.
Predictions based on experience
You can also think of gut feelings as a type of prediction based on experiences. Even memories you don’t fully recall, or information you aren’t consciously aware of, can guide you.
A 2016 study that attempted to measure intuition tested this idea:
- Researchers asked student participants to look at a screen of tiny moving dots and determine whether the dots moved toward the right or left side of the screen.
- At the same time, the researchers also showed participants images designed to inspire positive or negative emotions: a puppy, a baby, a gun, a snake. These images told them which way the dots were moving on the screen.
- Participants only saw these images through one eye, but they didn’t know they were seeing them. They viewed the dots through a mirror stereoscope, a device that allowed researchers to block those images from their conscious awareness.
When participants “saw” these images, their decisions became faster and more accurate. Skin conductance responses, which measure physiological arousal, suggest the participants also reacted to the images physically — even though they never realized what they were looking at.
Consider these examples of how existing knowledge — even if you aren’t aware of it — can trigger gut feelings.
A group of friends ask you to dinner at a popular restaurant. Something tells you not to go, and you pass on the invite.
A few days later, you hear that nearly everyone who went came down with food poisoning. That’s when you remember reading a critique of the restaurant that pointed out several unsanitary food preparation practices.
Or you match with someone on an online dating app and meet in person after a few weeks of texting. Things start off well, but suddenly you feel uncomfortable, though you can’t say why.
Eventually you say you’re not feeling well and leave. Back home, trying to puzzle out what happened, you glance back over their profile and early messages.
Some of the information — their last job, where they went to school, how their last relationship ended — completely conflicts with what they said on the date. You didn’t catch the lies in the moment, but they still served as red flags to wave you off.
Gut feelings bring up some of the same physical sensations as anxiety, so it can be tough to tell the two apart. You might also worry your mistrust of someone suggests paranoia.
Let’s say you told a friend about what happened on your date instead of digging into those messages. “Your nerves got the better of you,” they said knowingly. “It’s totally normal to feel nervous when you finally meet someone great.”
You felt certain something wasn’t right about them, but you decide your suspicions must have come from nerves after all.
Here are some guidelines for distinguishing between gut feelings, anxiety, and paranoia.
Gut feelings lead you in a clear direction
That sense of knowing you recognize as a gut feeling tends to come up in specific situations or when thinking about a certain person. This intuition usually leads you toward a concrete decision or action.
Anxiety, on the other hand, tends to focus on the future and often has less definition.
With anxiety, you might find yourself worrying about all manner of concerns, particularly those you can’t change or control. You might come up with several solutions to cope with potential negative scenarios but not feel certain about any of them.
Paranoia isn’t based on fact
Paranoia is an irrational suspicion of others and their actions. You might feel convinced someone means you harm, though you have no reason to mistrust them and no evidence to support your doubts.
These feelings often show up in different situations across your life. In other words, you probably won’t suspect just one person.
You may not recognize right away what fueled a gut feeling, but time and consideration can lead to deeper insight, even proof — just like the proof you found in your date’s messages.
To explore the feeling, try asking yourself things like, “What specifically bothers me about this person or situation?” or “Has something like this happened before?”
Gut feelings tend to pass once you make a decision. You might even notice a sense of relief or calm has replaced them.
Anxiety is more than a passing feeling, though. It typically leaves you on constant alert for potential threats. When you resolve one concern, you might begin worrying about something else or begin to doubt your decision.
No matter what you do or where you go, that persistent background rumble of fear and unease follows.
Gut feelings can be very real things, grounded in observation and experience. Still, you may not want to use them to make every decision.
Here’s a look at a few scenarios where trusting your gut is probably a safe bet.
When you can separate them from wishful thinking
Wishful thinking happens when you want something to happen so badly, you begin to believe it will happen.
Say you’ve always wanted to publish a novel, but you only have a few chapters written. But you just know — in your gut — your writing is good enough to catch the attention of an editor.
They’ll respond immediately, eager for more, you tell yourself. When you explain you’re struggling to fit writing in among the demands of daily life, they’ll offer an advance that allows you to take time off and focus on your book. In the end, you send the chapters out and start preparing a letter of resignation for work.
It’s difficult to rely on intuition when you lack the experience to back it up. Your desire to get published interferes with the reality that very few first-time authors get paid to finish writing a book.
When you need to make a quick decision
Sometimes you’ll want to weigh options, compare reviews, or get as many facts as possible. In some situations, though, you may not have much time to deliberate.
Say you’re looking at an apartment. The neighborhood seems fine, the building quiet, and the apartment itself is gorgeous. You love it, but you’d prefer to spend more time researching potential flaws or downsides before making up your mind.
As you finish your tour, the landlord says, “It’s yours if you want it, but I have four other people waiting, so I can only give you about 10 minutes to decide.”
If your gut says “Yes! Rent it. This is the place!” you’re probably safe to listen. But if this is your first time picking a place on your own, it might be best to get a bit more experience under your belt first.
When you’re trying to get in touch with your needs
Logic and reason can’t always compare with your intuitive knowledge of what you need. After all, you know yourself best.
Tonight is your friend’s birthday party, but you don’t want to go. You feel tired and drained, and a loud, crowded room sounds like the worst possible place to spend your evening.
Even though you know you might feel a little better once you’re actually there, an internal voice insists, “No way.”
Go ahead and skip it (really). Listening to your body can help you make decisions that support your needs in the moment.
When you lack data
Gut feelings can’t replace cold, hard evidence, but you may not always have facts to consider. Or you might have some data, just not enough to guide you to an answer.
Perhaps you’re trying to choose between two job offers that seem pretty equal on paper, or deciding whether to go on a second date with someone you feel less than enthusiastic about.
Time and practice can hone your intuition, so give your gut feelings the consideration they deserve. Tuning in to your emotions and bodily cues can help you practice listening to your gut and learning when to trust it.
When you struggle to identify gut feelings or have a hard time separating them from anxious thoughts, a therapist can help you cultivate the ability to tell them apart.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.