Should we really trust our instinct?

No matter what field you work in, we frequently hear advice like “just trust your instincts” or ”what is your gut telling you?”. We as a society believe that making decisions as an individual, critical thinking, and staying true to yourself are some of the most valuable qualities. But are they really?

Why should we “trust our guts” if we don’t even know what this feeling really is and where does it come from?

I recently read “Moonwalking with Einstein” , which is a great book by Joshua Foer who writes about taking the full advantage of our memory as he believes we can all become mnemonists. In his book, Foer explains how our brain works, and how it processes information to then store it. He wrote:

“Though there is disagreement about just how many memory systems there are, scientists generally divide memories broadly into two types: declarative and nondeclarative (sometimes referred to as explicit and implicit). Declarative memories are things you know you remember, like the color of your car, or what happened yesterday afternoon. (…) Nondeclarative memories are the things you know unconsciously, like how to ride a bike or how to draw a shape while looking at it in a mirror (or what a word flashed rapidly across a computer screen means). Those unconscious memories don’t seem to pass through the same short-term memory buffer as declarative memories, nor do they depend on the hippocampal region to be consolidated and stored. They rely primarily on different parts of the brain. (…) Indeed, most of who we are and how we think—the core material of our personalities— is bound up in implicit memories that are off- limits to the conscious brain.”

When I read this I had an instant epiphany: what we call our instincts is really just nondeclarative memory. And trust me – that is not something you want to base your decisions on. If you still don’t understand it, nondeclarative memory is accessed without consciousness, but implicitly through performance rather than recollection. So it consists of things you don’t even know are your memories. You know how to walk, how to speak, what to do when someone sneezed, or what are old people like (according to your experience) – all because of your nondeclarative memory.

So why is it bad? Well, the thing is we cannot control our nondeclarative memory and we don’t know what situations in our life formed it, thus our “instinct” is a combination of random things or trends we unconsciously consider truths. For example, imagine you are a kid who is walking into a store to buy gum, and in front of the line there is a mustached guy shouting at the cashier. Your brain will unconsciously make a connection between having a mustache and being coarse. That memory will be saved and you can’t control that. And a couple of years later, when you’re grown and let’s say you’re choosing who to hire, and the choice is between a mustached guy and a non-mustached guy, your instinct will tell you to go with the latter. So if you will ”trust your instincts”, you’ll base your choice on an entirely random situation that evolved into what your brain unknowingly considers as truth, when in reality it is completely false.

Do you get what I’m saying here? We cannot rely on the gut feeling because who knows what situations are its origin, and also how objective were we in these situations. Instead, we should consider all of the important factors, try to be unbiased, and make a rational decision based on these elements.

So in conclusion, if we’re not talking about your esthetic taste or the basic moral principles – don’t trust your instincts, because who the hell knows where they come from.

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