The Neurobiology of Intuition or Your Gut Feelings

July 27, 2019
The neurobiology of intuition and the science that studies it say that it's more important than ever now. In a world that's often chaotic and complex, knowing how to hear that inner voice can help you make better decisions.

The neurobiology of intuition exists and we’ve learned something very interesting about it. Most people base a lot of the decisions they make on their gut feelings. It’s basically just an inner voice in touch with your identity and everything you’ve seen, felt, and experienced. Your intuitive side can actually be an amazing tool if you make good use of it.

Let’s admit it. Intuition can often guide you to invisible universes, it can connect you to a part of yourself that inhabits the most hidden corners of your subconscious. It can feel so strange at times that you might think it isn’t a very scientific experience. It must be mystical because there’s no obvious logic to it. But that isn’t exactly true.

Intuition is really our sixth sense, and there’s a lot of scientific literature about it. For example, there are fascinating books such as Educating Intuition by Robin M. Hogarth and Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell.

In these books and many others on the topic, they argue for the importance of intuition as a resource. They say that it can actually complement analytical thought.

Then there are researchers such as Jonas Salk, who became well known in his time for inventing a polio vaccine. This doctor wrote a thought-provoking article in 1983, called “The Merging of Intuition and Reason”. In it, he talked about how we should be using our sixth sense in our daily lives because it can help us make better decisions.

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

-Albert Einstein-

An image of a child with his eyes closed, an and illustration of his brain, symbolizing the neurobiology of intuition.

What Does the Neurobiology of Intuition Have to Say?

First of all, the neurobiology of intuition suggests that these mental processes aren’t all in our imagination. They actually have a neurological foundation. Doctor Keiji Tanaka from the RIKEN Brain Institute led a fascinating study to try and find some answers to what happens in our brains to create this sixth sense.

To figure that out, he used some experimental study subjects: expert shogi players. The game is very similar to chess, and the most skilled players use their intuition to make some amazing moves. Dr. Tanaka also performed a series of MRIs on this group of people to see which parts of their brain they were using the most.

The Precuneus

According to his scans, the area of their brains that lit up most was the precuneus. This is a little part of the superior parietal lobe, which also happens to be right on the line between the right and left brain hemispheres.

The precuneus plays a role in episodic memory and visual-spatial processing. But most interesting of all, it plays a role in consciousness. 

The Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex

Another interesting area that lit up when they were using the intuitive parts of their brain was the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. This is a key part of our brains. Why? It’s where we store all of the information on past rewards, along with the pain of mistakes, or things we wish we hadn’t done so that we would have avoided experiencing something negative.

Famous neuroscientist Antonio Damasio figured out how important this part of our brain is in the decision-making process. The most interesting thing about this brain structure is that it responds based on emotions.

Here’s an example. Imagine you meet someone at a party, who then invites you to go back to their place. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex will do a fast analysis based on your past experiences.

There could be something about their personality, appearance, or speech that makes you skeptical of them. This is because they remind you of someone you had a negative experience with. From there, it will send out an alarm to get your attention. That’s your intuition trying to make its way into your conscious mind.

Once you’ve heard that inner voice, you have two options. You can either listen to it or send it through the filter of analytical thought if you want to examine it more carefully.

A person's hand reaching out towards a sunset over the water.

The Caudate Nucleus

Scientific studies on the neurobiology of intuition have also emphasized the caudate nucleus. It’s a structure that’s part of the basal ganglia, which plays a role in learning, habits, and automatic behaviors.

Basically, the caudate nucleus speeds up the sixth sense to help you make quicker, almost automatic decisions based on your previous experiences or learning.

Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

-Steve Jobs-

As you can see from all this information, it’s hard to chalk all these processes up to accidents or a product of our imagination. Not only is there a neurological foundation to intuition but it also involves your past experiences, your personality, and your subconscious, or the place that contains the essence of who you are.

Gut feelings aren’t just pseudoscience. They’re actually a mechanism that has helped to define who we are as humans of all genders, races, and cultures. This is really worth thinking about. You should always listen to that inner voice and use your ability to think analytically about things when you need to.

  • The Neural Basis of Intuitive Best Next-Move Generation in Board Game Experts. Xiaohong Wan et al. in Science, Vol. 331, pages 341–346; January 21, 2011.Developing Intuition: Neural Correlates of Cognitive-Skill Learning in Caudate Nucleus. Xiaohong Wan et al. in Journal of Neuroscience, Vol. 32, pages 17,492–17,501; November 28, 2012.
  • Sadler-Smith, E., & Shefy, E. (2011). The intuitive executive: Understanding and applying “gut feel” in decision-making. Academy of Management Executive18(4), 76–91. https://doi.org/10.5465/ame.2004.15268692
  • Thompson, V. A., Prowse Turner, J. A., & Pennycook, G. (2011). Intuition, reason, and metacognition. Cognitive Psychology63(3), 107–140. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cogpsych.2011.06.001
  • Kuo, W. J., Sjöström, T., Chen, Y. P., Wang, Y. H., & Huang, C. Y. (2009). Intuition and deliberation: Two systems for strategizing in the brain. Science324(5926), 519–522. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1165598