Archive for June, 2011

The Big Idea

Don’t be afraid to think with your gut. No, not your stomach–your emotions and intuitions. At least, that’s the best advice to get from the latest research in brain science. As it turns out, brief emotions and quick intuitions are critical in guiding us to sound decisions. Sometimes they can even do the job better than so-called “logical,” and thought out decision-making. Regardless, the big idea is this: pay attention to fleeting feelings. They might even save your life.

The Science

It turns out that while the human brain has amazing capacities for mathematics, science, and abstract logic, those mechanisms aren’t what it uses for making decisions. In fact, we can be led astray by putting too much faith in them when it’s not appropriate to do so. But what are the appropriate mechanisms? Let’s look first at the orbitofrontal cortex.

The orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) is located in the front of your brain, just above your eye-sockets. Among a host of other tasks, it lets us experience emotions—both the good and the bad. Similarly, it helps us inhibit more primal and dangerous urges (when it gets damaged, people curse, gamble, and generally act like monkeys). It doesn’t really have anything to do with logic, but without it, people become unable to make decisions (literally unable to decide practically anything). The orbitofrontal cortex responds to emotional cues brought on from another area of the brain—the nucleus accumbens.

The nucleus accumbens (NAcc) plays a relatively simpler role in our story. It creates the chemical that rules our emotions—dopamine. Fluctuations of dopamine tell us whether to be scared, happy, or excited, or anything else. But how does the NAcc know what signals to send? We’re now at the root of the process.

The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) develops a pattern of expectations about how the world works, and when our senses violate those expectations, the ACC makes a serious fuss. It sends an electrical signal (known as error-related negativity, if you fancy the details) to the NAcc when something unexpected happens, telling it what to do with the dopamine. A dopamine rush for your friend picking up the bill? Coming right up. A dopamine strike for your date who only paid for his own meal? Consider it done.

Those signals route to the orbitofrontal cortex, which evaluates them, and translates them into decisions. To summarize, the brain is able to develop patterns of how the world works, and those models tell us whether something is good or bad. Quarterbacks on the field go through this process in split-seconds, as they intuitively evaluate passing options based on rushed glances across the field. The receiver on the left is covered too well, according to the anterior cingulate cortex’s expectations (reponse: dopamine strike and a fleeting twinge of “bad feeling”). The one on the right is perfectly set to catch the ball, says the ACC right before making an “A-OK” feel good moment. Quarterback feels good about his prospect, quarterback throws.

There are extraordinary cases too, such as Lieutenant Commander Michael Riley’s sharp intuition in the Persian Gulf War. He saw a blip on the radar looking just like any of the American planes, but he was scared. His gut was screaming “danger.” He ordered the blip shot down, unable to give any reason at all why. Turns out, he shot down a missile that would have destroyed the whole ship. Later analysis revealed exactly what his brain picked up on, but the point is this—neither he nor any of the radar watchers on the ship could logically justify the response.

If they relied on logic, they would be dead. We can be thankful that Lieutenant Commander Riley relied on his gut.


I am going to follow up on this post with some more research and brain science demonstrating the power of intuition, but for now, the point is that you should trust gut feelings—not just the overarching scary ones, but the little pangs and twinges, the “doesn’t feel quite right” moments. As I’ll talk about more later, not only can you trust those feelings, but they can do a better job than even a thorough rational analysis.

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