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Intuition (Pt 3): Who wins, your guts or your brains?

Updated on September 5, 2011

"Should I bolt every time I get that feeling in my gut when I meet someone new? Well, I've been listening to my gut since I was 14 years old, and frankly speaking, I've come to the conclusion that my guts have sh** for brains." - Nick Hornby, from his novel, High Fidelity.

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The first experience has a disproportionate impact on how we detect patterns. The patterns we identify, whether it’s something in the behavior of another person, a situation, or whatever, determine the choices we make, how we respond. It goes straight to responsibility and ultimately the situations we create for ourselves.

Let’s start with coffee. How much sugar and milk were in that first cup? Our first experience sets a standard against which the next is judged. The next experience alters the training, too, but not as much as the first. Maybe we alter the sugar/milk mix. The process continues until we develop intuition for what to expect from coffee. At some point espresso comes around and has a bigger impact on, say, our tenth cup of coffee, but still, not as much as that first ever cup of joe.

What if the first cup burnt your tongue? You might not like coffee. At least you’re going to treat it with some respect, right? You’ll be the sort who blows the steam off before that first tentative sip. You’ll probably be blower-sipper the rest of your life. But if it’s your 100th cup that burns your tongue, it won’t change your practice.

If you list “firsts” in your life, you see that they almost always set the precedent for your future experiences. Your first love has a huge effect on who you consider lovable, what you consider beautiful or handsome. The response of an audience the first time you sing out loud has an inordinate affect on whether you believe that you can sing. If you score the first time you attempt a sport, you’re likely to stick with it. If it’s a positive experience, you’re likely to deem yourself talented and keep at it.


Consider love at first sight.

People who grow up with abusive parents tend to be attracted to abusive mates – love at first sight with an added punch. The pattern recognition system that identifies mates has been trained on a bad sample and it’s difficult for them to retrain. When someone grows up in an abusive home, it takes years of psychological support for them to reset their pattern recognition, to develop more accurate intuition.

On the other hand, when someone with a healthy mate-detection system has a relationship with an abusive person, they can walk away. They’ll be hurt, of course, maybe even need some help overcoming the trauma, but the essential training doesn’t have to be reconfigured from its foundation.

Love at first sight (or second, or millionth) is a pretty complicated example of intuition.

Should you listen to “your gut” or think through your options?

When you have a hunch, a gut reaction, an intuition about something, what has happened is that all the pattern detection abilities of your mind have whipped out an answer to the question before you asked. It is precisely the process that permits you to read a sentence without having to calculate the values of each pixel on the screen, assemble them into characters, the characters into words, etc., but on a far grander scale.

There is a school of thought that believes you should always go with your gut. Always? Really? If your intuition in a particular area is poorly trained, like the dude from an abusive family, then maybe your “gut has s**t for brains” and you should think your way through.

Some people make excellent intuitive decisions. Some need to think their way through every option. As human beings progress ever deeper into a world more dominated by culture than nature, when value judgments as encoded by economics play a greater roll than the seasons or the weather (in the sense that we don’t have to be outside, not in the sense that the economics food production or whatever is linked to weather) our pattern detection abilities must become more sophisticated. They need more training.

The answer, as with almost every personal question, is optimization. Hopefully you go with your gut when it’s right and think you’re way through in those areas where your gut “has s**t for brains.”


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    • Enlydia Listener profile image

      Enlydia Listener 

      7 years ago from trailer in the country

      Interesting...I will have to think about what attracted me to my husband in light of intuition. Very thought provoking.

    • PiaC profile image


      7 years ago from Oakland, CA

      I've never thought of love as intuition but it really is, isn't it? And now it brings me to the sudden realization that all my friends, whom I love, are weirdly similar! Thanks for this thought-provoking Hub, Ransom!


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