Applying on a whim, a hope and a prayer to Oxford, moving to Hong Kong, quitting and rejecting more jobs (and money!) than I care to think about, asking out guys, and hiking over mountains to escape natural disaster in deepest India.
So far, it’s got me out of trouble about as many times as it’s sent me rushing headlong for it. But is it time to stop listening to my gut, to quit while I’m ahead? Or could it be the best friend, counsellor and careers advisor I’ll ever have?
A few definitions first
To avoid any later confusion, this is how I define instinct, gut feeling and intuition.
Instinct: our innate inclination toward a particular behaviour (as opposed to a learned response).
Gut feeling, or hunch: a sensation that appears quickly in consciousness (noticeable enough to be acted on if one chooses to) without us being fully aware of the underlying reasons for its occurrence.
Intuition: a process that gives us the ability to know something directly without analytic reasoning, bridging the gap between the conscious and non-conscious parts of our mind, and also between instinct and reason.
Me, my gut and I
My gut and I have always had a close relationship. Fear, panic, excitement, nerves: my tummy’s where I feel it. Don’t we all? Those butterflies in your stomach, that churning, lurching, wrenching feeling. Whether it’s love or loathing, our bodies can have a pretty violent reaction, telling us faster than our brains can what we think about something – or someone – and possibly what we should do about it. But do we always listen?
Preparing to go to India last summer in a bid to find the peace I craved, I was reading one of my favourite yoga books – by the aptly (and beautifully alliteratively) named Beryl Bender Birch. Her path to enlightenment was one I very much wanted to share with my boyfriend who, for better or worse, was trying to conquer his terror and accompany me on my trip, apparently under the impression that he would worry less about me if he was there just to worry about everything.
So wishing to spread the love and light I embarked on relating her tale of a near-drastic encounter in India when, having made friends with a few fellas and been taken for chai, she started to come over a bit funny, hallucinating like, and when Ganesh started to run down the walls she knew – in fact, a voice, very loud and very clear told her – to “Get the hell out!” Out on the street, where they’d been no taxis previously, one suddenly appeared from the darkness and she jumped in just in time, before the guys who had quickly followed her out could stop her.
Well, we’ve all heard horror stories of what can happen to women in India, but here was an inspirational tale about trusting yourself and trusting in something bigger, about being awake to your own inner guide – precisely the point I’d been trying to make to my dear, nervous-wreck of a boyfriend for weeks. The previous story I’d told him about a monk who every night was hit over the head by his master until finally he stayed alert enough to hear the master coming had had some effect. My boyfriend was starting to sit up, take notice and be mindful. But with this latest tale he was suddenly so wide-awake he was actually having a panic attack.
That’s what happens when a scientist and a English major yogi collide; he has to put up with my beliefs in astrology and the efficacy of homeopathy and I have to deal with his lack of faith in …. well, anything that’s not available over the counter or on prescription, i.e. faith and intuition. As a biologist he’s not about to deny me my instincts, and Lord knows I put up with his. His instinct to fear danger and protect me from it, is one that I not only suffer but actively try to allay in him: “Put them away,” I say, “your fears are not needed here.” But intuition…? “Ah, that’s different,” I say. Well, is it?
Magical, mumbo-jumbo or a bridge between our instincts – our gut – and our reason? I’m here to find out.
Thinking not feeling
The war between emotion and reason is age old. Think about it: how many times have you been accused of being “irrational” when you’re merely angry, of having your point of view disregarded because of the vehemency of your expression, your passion? It’s not simply that emotion and reason are considered antithetical, it’s that reason is typically seen as superior to emotion. But are they really that different?
The Stoics are famous for advocating the use of reason to control the passions, which – they argue – if left to their own devices lead us astray. Take Shakespeare’s Othello for example, led astray by his love for Desdemona into jealousy and murder, while in the Roman plays almost the opposite is true: Brutus’ love of Rome is abused. But here we see the Renaissance’s obsession with stoicism, with people nobly falling on their own sword to avoid a worse fate (less of honour and death at the hands of another).
Take Portia (Julius Caesar again) as another example and one of my favourite heroines of all time. She is desperate to uncover the source of her husband’s introspection and malaise, trying every which way to persuade him to unburden himself to her. True to his nature as a Roman (and, possibly, a man) he is being stoical, keeping his problems wrapped up in himself, not giving way to emotion. But Portia, true to her nature as a Roman (and a woman – Cato’s daughter no least, as she proudly says), reveals at the end of the scene the stab wound she’s given herself in the thigh – the blood trickling down her leg and the pain she must have been suffering all this way only imaginable. “Can I,” she asks, in a final bid to move Brutus, “bear that with patience and not my husband’s secrets?”
Well, apart from having a lot to tell us about ancient attitudes towards women, the play reveals the high status given in classical times to patient suffering. It was noble, heroic. But not only then. For who, if not Christ – an icon of religious persecution and suffering, dominating art, literature, sacred and secular discourse over the past two thousand years – makes a virtue of turning the other cheek? So, what should we do? Master our emotions and put up with our pain and suffering quietly, like a man. There is certainly something to be said for the power of mind over matter in certain cases. I’d be the first to hold my hand up and testify to this: will power, positive thinking, eye of the tiger…Grr! But then there are times when… Take Christ’s appeal on the cross: “My God! My God! Why hast thou forsaken me?” While it may not have made him a man, did it not make him human? Christ’s “Passion” refers, after all, not to his love or emotion as we interpret the word, but to his suffering, and the question is: do you want to be a modern day martyr? Who, in the end, will thank you?
We’ve all seen it, probably even been it: the busy worker bee who never gives into illness but goes straight to the nearest Boots, Watsons or Mannings (depending where in the world you live) and pops pills – decongestants at night, bunger-ups by day, a Vit C for all occasions and a dab of tiger balm just in case – to get them through the long office day. It was a typical scene at my workplaces in Hong Kong: one person coming in red-eyed and coughing fitfully behind a white mask, and slowly as the week progresses that person is joined by their neighbour, then your neighbour, until finally you contract it too and what was once a research department of an international real estate agent now resembles a medical research laboratory for infectious diseases.
Surely much better to do like the Brits and pull a sickie at the first available? Or like the Americans and call upon your constitutional right to duvet days? Or could the West’s lack of stoicism be the reason Asia is leading the way?
Yet stoicism as we’ve been defining it here is only its Mickey Mouse version: a two-dimensional cardboard cut-out, a parody of what true Hellenistic and Roman Stoic philosophy advocated. For as Martha Nussbaum writes in The Therapy of Desire, the Stoics’ bold claim was for the emotions as judgements – complex forms of cognition – about whether an object in the world poses good or ill to ourselves. Think about and it makes perfect sense. Why do you feel fear? Because you value your life and something appears to be endangering or threatening that. Why do you feel pleasure or love? Because something or someone is enhancing the quality of your life. It can be experienced in animals, when they cower from a raised hand, wag their tails at the sign of walkies, purr or roll over when we pet them…
Their emotional responses are linked to thoughts – the recognition – of what will enhance or endanger their wellbeing. And we are little different. Though the signs may be harder to read and the good or ill signified may be less obvious, less direct and therefore harder to assess, our emotions are not the polar opposite of thinking, but intrinsically related to it. You could say they are an intuitive form of thinking.
Back to nature
Another criticism of Stoic philosophy – as with so much Hellenistic philosophy – is its claim on the one hand to be concerned with questions of the good life and on the other with its advocacy of detachment. How, one cries, can I be a good person – a loving, caring, tolerant and sympathetic member of society – and be detached at the same time? Hence Macbeth’s famously ambiguous response to the news of his wife’s death – “She should have died hereafter” – or Brutus’ complete poker face feeling at Portia’s death makes them cold hearted husbands in our eyes, while Othello’s murderous jealousy at least shows that he loved her. But Stoic detachment, as with the Epicureans’ goal of pleasure, meant only freedom from pain and suffering – that you might, as Rudyard Kipling wrote, “meet triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same.”
For some this remains unacceptable, a life half-lived. As the transcendentalist David Thoreau wrote in Walden; Or, Life in the Woods: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” For Thoreau, living deliberately meant living “deep and suck[ing] out all the marrow of life,” the desire expressed by so many for a full experience, complete immersion in all that life has to offer, both bitter and sweet. However, more immediately – in a cabin in the woods of New England – it meant living “sturdily and Spartan-like…driv[ing] life into a corner, and reduc[ing] it to its lowest terms.” It meant, in short, simplicity and even privation.
True living, drawing deep and sucking out the marrow does not then mean hedonistic pleasure – all night parties, lines of coke, penthouse hotel rooms. It might mean going a bit Bear Grylls, a bit Lord of the Flies and getting back to nature.
Why oh why do we bother?
To suffer and feel pain, while not everyone’s idea of the ideal summer vacation, can be entirely useful. I mean, there’s nothing like putting a staple through your thumb to teach you there’s a right and wrong way to load a stapler. It is, in evolutionary terms, in our best interests. The lessons we learn through failing painfully ourselves can have more power than the dire warnings and threats of our parents, teachers and bosses. However, we don’t always have to go through this pain or trauma to instinctively know that something is fatal to us.
The modern world of information sharing and second-life gaming would have us believe we can live and learn vicariously, and we know that athletes and musicians can practise just as effectively mentally as they can physically, going through the jumps or chords they will perform in their minds before a big gig. This is because through repetition certain movements and sequences become hard-wired into the body’s – more specifically, the muscles’ – memory, enabling it to execute these in perfect timing and synchronicity on demand, with a conscious thought barely passing through your brain. In fact, it’s only when we start to think about what we are doing – be it running on the treadmill, signing our name to a cheque or reading these words off the page – that we start to come unstuck.
As psychologists Dr John Baugh of New York University and Dr Tanya Chartrand, Ohio State University, explain it: “Our consciousness is biased to think that its own intentions and deliberate choices rule our lives. But consciousness overrates its own control.” Thus the phenomenon of Parkinson’s sufferers who, unable to stop their hands, arms and legs from shaking, can yet run up stairs without any trouble or remain perfectly still as soon as they pick up their golf clubs, because their body’s ability to remember and perform deeply ingrained complex tasks overrides their neurological condition. And if this is true of learnt behaviour, what about those you (or, okay, your ancestors) have been doing for millennia?
It’s a miracle! No, it’s instinct
I have always been awed by the seemingly miraculous survival stories and heroic feats of war veterans: the tales of soldiers who walked miles back to their home trenches on the stumps of their legs, their feet – blown off in a mine – hanging around their necks by their bootlaces. What these stories clearly demonstrate is that the mind’s ability in times of extreme danger (or excitement) to override (and subsequently forget! as famously with child-birth) pain is an incredible and life-saving mechanism. (Less inspiringly of course, there’s the friend who keeps on dating Misters Wrong and Wrong-Again.)
According to the Instinct Theory of Motivation, we all have innate tendencies that help us to survive: a baby is born with a reflex for seeking out the mother’s nipple and suckling, while birds have an ingrained, unlearnt need to build a nest and migrate. We all know that dogs emerging from a dirty pond or river are going to shake their wet coat all over us, or that if you turn your back for a minute a puppy will ravage your best shoes. Their behaviour is predictable because it is ingrained, a spontaneous reflex, an instinct. And humans are no exception.
The Moro reflex, also known as the startle reflex and which can be best observed in babies describes what happens when you hear a loud or frightening noise: they extend their arms and legs and brace their spine as if they are about to fall, even when they are not. Amazing huh? Well, my boyfriend does just about the same thing still, no doubt accounting for my increased rapid heart since I met him (or perhaps that’s just love for you). But most of us have learnt to temper and control our natural reflexes so that we can go about our day without exhibiting signs of Tourette’s. Or have we?”
Instinct theory proposes that organisms engage in certain behaviors because they lead to success in terms of natural selection,” writes Nancy Melucci in E-Z Psychology. She cites migration and mating as examples of instinctually motivated behaviour in animals – deep-seated drives that cannot be denied. This sounds all too familiar to me: I am motivated to flight, my partner to mate (and vice versa as soon as I mention that little word “marriage”).
But what about all those other instincts? Freud proposed life and death as the two key forces driving us, while his predecessor in this field Professor Douglas McDougall outlined 18 different instincts, ranging from curiosity and laughter to hunger and sex. Are all these instincts – complex unlearnt patterns of behaviour – still going on beneath the surface, and should we be listening to them more, giving way to our most basic needs and drives?
When enough’s enough
To feel pain is human, to forgive – they say – divine. But do we forgive ourselves the pain we suffer, or do we not, in this age of 24 hour rapid-action off-the-shelf analgesics and painkillers, not simply try and mask it? Do we cope with it stoically or do we seek to be rid of it asap? What could our pain be telling us if we really stopped to listen? And could it be garnered to be actually useful – beneficial, life-enhancing – to ourselves?
Take that gut feeling again. Feeling nauseous, tension headaches, irritable bowel; not only do we feel unwell at the idea of going into work, we are afraid even of calling in sick. But what do you do? You know you’re not really ill, it’s just the nerves talking: you have an exam, a big case, a lunch meeting or presentation you’d really rather not go to. You have to suck it up and get on with it. Or do you?
When I was just a little girl, I was terrified of everything. Quite literally. From rehearsing for the school nativity play and competing in sports day to birthday parties and visiting my own cousins, I’d be found awake at night crying as if the world were about to end – or, rather, as if I wished it would. My poor, sympathetic mother covered for me for a time, excusing me from competitive sports and giving me her locket to wear as a talisman at Christmas, Easter, Harvest and any other time the school thought they try and have some festive fun with us. But in time even she grew tired of my anxious suffering and clinginess. Why couldn’t I just go out and play with the other children like my sisters did?
Well, this pattern of fearful avoidance didn’t really change until about the age of 15 when, taking a look around me – at the boy in the upper years I had a crush on going off to university, my best friend moving away to live up north – I realised that if I didn’t do something to get out of the safety zone I’d created for myself, I’d be stuck in my small town, stacking shelves and pushing pushchairs, forever and ever Amen. This gave me about the same heart-wrenching fear as sports day did, and I knew something had to change.
All in the mind?
You might think that my fear of being left behind while my friends all went on out into the world was a natural response to a rational judgement, and in part you would be right. But just as our thoughts, for example, of a loved one, of a nice holiday, a deadly animal or an old school bully conjure up emotions – joy, love, fear, loathing – so too do our emotions reveal our unconscious thoughts. “We’re finding that everything is evaluated as good or bad within a quarter of a second,” says Dr John Baugh. But it’s not just our conscious minds that do the cognitive processing required in everyday decision making and action taking; it’s our bodies too.
If it’s a question of which comes first the chicken or the egg – the reason or the emotion – we might say our instincts come first, but this is not to say they are irrational or against reason. According to Psychology Today magazine, “Hunches are formed using our past experience and knowledge.” But more than that, they can be clues to a deeper, possibly as yet undiscovered, rationale or judgement within us. As Aristotle noted in De Anima, perception – that is, feeling – involves discrimination. It involves judgement. Whether it is the right judgement is the work of our minds or brains to figure out, but if you are tuned into your body then you are already one step ahead of the game.
It’s rumoured that adorning Albert Einstein’s office was the phrase: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” As rational beings we spend a lot of our day counting, measuring, evaluating, assessing. Consider the amount of time you spend calculating: how long it will take to get a task done or travel from A to B, your salary going in versus your expenses going out, whether you would rather have cheese and pickle for lunch or ham and mustard (or neither, eugh gross!). And from thinking we can all too often find ourselves over-thinking: “If I do this, say that, wear this… what will X think, say, do?”
Intuition or gut feeling works the opposite way: if questioned you may not always be able to come up with a coherent verbal explanation for why you acted in a certain way at the time, but it seemed right and nine times out of ten it probably was. This is because intuition works instantaneously, getting in there before you brain has a chance to get involved. “It’s automatic, fast and practically “thoughtless” since it doesn’t require analysis or deep thinking,” Daniel Kahneman explains in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. And you’d be amazed how many of our judgements and how much of our decision-making happens in a flash thanks to the power of intuition.
However, science remains sceptical of this ancient, magical form of thinking, and as Psychology Today writer Peg Streep writes in The Art (and Science) of “Trusting Your Gut”, it remains unclear whether the slow kind of thinking works in tandem with or interrupts fast thinking, or whether they work sequentially. As a rather slow, ruminative thinker myself (most of my best ideas coming to me while in the shower or while taking downward-facing dog), I am in favour of both, but experience has taught me to be wary of letting my brain get too much involved and interfere with my intuition. After all, there’s only so long you can stand in the cereal aisle trying to choose between Shreddies and Shredded Wheats (the mini raisin ones. Yeah, now you know my difficulty!) before someone’s likely to take pity on you and offer to return you to the home.
Einstein’s fellow physicist Richard Feynman is one who has cautioned against taking too much heed of one’s intuition: “The first principle,” he said, “is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” Indeed, intuition’s airy-fairy, unscientific reputation is not helped by the fact that it is hard to observe and life hard to measure. As John Donne acknowledged of his own emotional health, “of the diseases of the mind there is no criterion, no canon, no rule… if I know it not nobody can know it.” Emotional knowledge is, as the literary critic Brian Cummings writes, “self-reflexive in the deepest sense. The only test for how I feel is how I feel.”
Are women more intuitive?
As if this was not enough of a stumbling block, intuition’s reputation been further maligned by the West’s traditionally gendered approach to theories of knowledge and the mind, in which men have been considered the rational ones while women have been the guardians of feeling and intuition. “I know because I know,” we women cry, or more proudly, “it’s female intuition!” And how many do you suppose were burnt at the stake or dunked in a well for saying that? But are women really more intuitive than men? Is intuition the preserve of witches and new-age hippies?
Well, there is a wealth of evidence that states quite categorically “No.” Dr William Ickes has been conducting research into empathic accuracy (aka everyday minding) for the past 20 years, and his findings reveal that in tests of men and women’s ability to read other people’s thoughts and feelings, there is no difference between the sexes. They both perform equally well – or badly. Where was that so-called women’s intuition?
Then they found it. In a series of tests where women were asked not only to read other people’s feelings but to rate how well they think they performed, the women outperformed the men. That is, when they knew that they were being tested for their empathic response – something that stereotypically they knew they should succeed in and were motivated to do so – they performed better. The women, that is, tried harder, while the men, not feeling the need (or perhaps the desire) to be more empathic, didn’t. What is even more interesting, however, is that when offered a financial incentive the men could perform better than the women, be more empathic, more intuitive, suggesting that we all have the ability to tap into our innate, empathic knowledge if and when we are motivated to do so.
But why should we? What – apart from being a more feeling, sympathetic human beings – are the benefits of nurturing our inner voice, listening to our gut feeling?
According to Toby Storie-Pugh, founder of Expedition Everest, listening to your gut could be the key to realising your deepest, most heartfelt, yearning, burning passions. We may not all have it in us to climb Everest, but the lessons that Storie-Pugh learnt along his ascent are ones that I would assent to.
Travelling in India last summer – making the trip of my spiritual lifetime, remember? – proved to be everything my boyfriend feared. Well, no, that’s not quite right: it was worse. I got caught up in Uttarakhand’s disastrous floods, falling ill and getting cut off from the nearest town and doctor, without electricity or mobile signal for a week until I decided – my gut told me – to get the hell out. So the experience, far from proving my boyfriend’s instinctive fears right and my intuition wrong, to me affirmed everything I already believed in. And he’d say the same. I am going back to India in a few weeks full of hope, love and faith, and he will not touch it with a barge pole.
In the end, I guess, we make a decision: to follow our instincts, our intuitions, our dreams out into the world and test them there – were they right or were they wrong – or we let them keep us safe at home, never knowing, always doubting.
As Elizabeth Bishop asks in her poem ‘Questions of Travel’: “should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” Well, I’ll let you decide, but my advice, for what it’s worth – as Tobie Storie-Pugh’s – would be, whether it’s setting up a business, starting a family or deciding whether to donate to a beggar on the street – to Trust Your Instinct:
1. There will never be a right time.
You might think that tomorrow the sun will shine and you can get out and hike, or that next year you will be in a better financial position to start a family, move house, take that round-the-world trip, but what are the chances it won’t rain then too? What’s that famous Latin phrase… carpe diem, seize the day? If you let obstacles get in your way, if you put it off for another day, you are always one step further from achieving your goal.
2. Be patient.
So you’ve just left the comfort and security of your old job/country/partner and are finding it tough going. If you are just starting out afresh, it can take time for things to fall into place, but remember your original gut instinct and all the rational judgements that supported that decision. If you’re acting in honesty with yourself, happiness is not far away.
3. Let your dreams be big, let your dreams be ethical.
Your gut should be telling you what is really important to yourself – moving to live closer to family, starting a landscape gardening enterprise, taking a course of study or embarking on a spiritual path. It should also be telling you what is the right thing by those around you, serving their better interests, long-term ‘survival’ and happiness as well as your own. This and their support will help keep you going even when the going gets tough.