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Published August 01, 2012, 11:30 PM

Positively Beautiful: Gut feelings have scientific basis

Have you ever wondered about that sixth sense that seems to wash over you? Some call it intuition; some call it a gut check.

By: Dr. Susan Mathison, Areavoices.com, INFORUM

Have you ever wondered about that sixth sense that seems to wash over you? Some call it intuition; some call it a gut check.

It’s that visceral butterfly feeling in your stomach that transcends thinking but helps guide our decisions. Some think it’s new-age fairy dust, but gut feelings are backed by science.

Our gut, a.k.a. the gastrointestinal system, is comprised of the esophagus, stomach, small intestine and colon. It is lined by mucous membranes and wired by a complex of neurons – called the enteric nervous system – more numerous than the spinal cord.

Some scientists think the gut has a mind of its own. Just like the brain, this neural network sends and receives chemicals called neurotransmitters, and reacts to emotions and experiences. The brain and the gut influence each other, but the gut can also respond independently to situations. Gut feelings may indicate a previous lesson learned, hidden from our conscious mind, but available in the memory bank of our gut then transmitted to the intuitive brain.

Michael Gershon, Columbia University professor and author of the book “Our Second Brain,” says understanding the connections between our brain and our gut helps explain why people act and feel the way they do.

The fight-or-flight response is an example. A frightening or stressful situation perceived by our brain releases chemical triggers, which also affect our gut and can cause stomach upset or even a feeling of choking due to increased neural activity. Sensations can also begin in the gut and be passed back to our conscious brain.

Studies have shown that gut instinct works well in sports and music if you have practiced and learned good skills. Coaches will say, “Don’t overthink it.” The well-trained performer has internalized the subject, and the gift of mastery is to naturally respond to challenges based on intuition, as if your body knew what to do before it even entered your mind.

Patients often have hunches about their physical well being. If you have troublesome symptom that we in the medical world haven’t been able to figure out, it’s OK to ask for a second opinion. I always say that I appreciate a second set of eyes and hands if I haven’t found the diagnosis.

Homebuyers tend to be more satisfied when they go with their gut feelings about a house, rather than just relying on conscious fact-finding.

How can we learn from our gut to make better decisions? Oprah tackled this subject in her LifeClass series and her experts suggest:

1. Visualize the decision. Karol Ward, psychotherapist and author of “Find Your Inner Voice: Using Instinct and Intuition Through the Body-Mind Connection,” suggests “trying on the decision,” by which you picture yourself making a choice and then pay close attention to your physiological reaction.

How does you your body feel?

Many decisions cause nervousness, but you can usually distinguish between the butterflies and your stomach flipping around like a 20 pound walleye on the dock. The right decision usually gives expansive, optimistic flutters, while the wrong decision causes constriction, tension and anxiety.

2. Toss a coin. Psychologist William Ickes, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Arlington, flipped a penny to decide which graduate school to attend. He had narrowed his choices to two but was still undecided after making a list of the pros and cons for each. He called his father. “He told me to flip a coin and pay close attention to my immediate gut reaction to the outcome. If I’m happy with the way the coin toss came out, I go with that. If I’m disappointed with the way the coin toss came out, I ignore its outcome and choose the other alternative.”

3. Look ahead. How does your decision play out over the long term? A move to a big city might be filled with great night-life, exotic restaurants, new friends and excitement. It might also bring crowds, traffic and noise. How do you feel in these future situations?

Gut feelings are complex, but when we can listen in and use them to aid our conscious mind, they can guide us to happier and healthier lives. It’s science!

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created PositivelyBeautiful.com.