Space & Innovation

Do Gut Feelings Actually Exist?

Have you ever wondered why you get that feeling in your gut when faced with a risky decision? There's more behind it than you may think.

A recent study at the University of Cambridge attempted to quantify that trusty old colloquialism -- the gut feeling. The resulting research adds to a growing body of evidence that suggests gut feelings are real -- and you should listen to them. Amy Shira Teitel has the details in today's DNews special report.

First, the new study: Researchers from the U.K. and Australia gathered up 18 male financial traders who make their living by trusting "gut instincts" during high frequency trading. The experiment was rather simple: How accurately could the men gauge their own resting heartbeat without using a pulse point? The idea was to assess whether the subjects could detect subtle changes in their physiological processes.

While the sample size was admittedly the small, the results were interesting and statistically significant: The 18 traders were consistently able to count their heart rate better than non-traders. Within the test group, those that scored higher on the heartbeat test had survived longer in the financial world and earned more money. The results suggest a correlation between good body awareness and good decision-making in a risky environment.

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The study wasn't just a shot in the dark. It was based on a solid body of science that suggests gut feelings are a very real thing, indeed.

Scientists have long known that the body's complex bacterial system is monitored by an equally complex neural network known as the enteric nervous system. This network of over 100 million neurons is separate from the autonomic nervous system and is in fact embedded in the lining of the gastrointestinal tract.

Your gut, in other words, has a kind of brain of its own -- and it's in constant communication with that more familiar pile of synapses housed in your skull. The gut-brain connection goes both ways. Gastrointestinal bacteria produce neurochemicals that regulate certain mental processes, influencing memory and mood. And the brain affects the microbiome of bacteria in the body. For instance, psychological stress can suppress certain helpful bacteria making you more likely to get sick.

This two-way communication is part of a larger network of inter-body talk. The brain connecting to the gut through neural networks -- and also your ability to recognize this connection -- are examples of interoception, or internal sense. Like hunger or thirst, a gut feeling is a real sensation, and it's really trying to tell you something.

Amy has more details in her report, but the Cambridge study suggests trusting your gut really does pay off. If you're a trader on the London trading floor, anyway.

-- Glenn McDonald

Learn More:

NCBI: Gut Feelings: The Emerging Biology of Gut-Brain Communication

Lab of Action & Body, Royal Holloway, University of London: Interoception and Sense of Body-Ownership

Science Daily: Gut Feelings Help Make More Successful Financial Traders