Your Gut and Your Brain

gut and brainShould you be training your gut or your brain? Our sense of having gut reactions is truer than many of us think. The latest research into how people make decisions demonstrates that, contrary to popular opinion, our emotions do not interfere with our decisions. Our emotions are essential to making good decisions in dealing with people rather than objects. While emotions can mislead us, this is most often because we haven't been trained in useful models for gut decision-making. Gutsy decisions are the best decisions when arising from trained strategic reflexes.

General Adaptation

The oldest form of emotional reaction is the flight or fight reflex, a term coined in 1920s by the American physiologist, Walter B. Cannon. This reflex, found in all animals, involves the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal gland. Work during World War II by Hans Selye identified a longer lasting response, the "General Adaptation Syndrome," with which operates in response to longer-term exposure to challenges to cause of stress.

The Role of Feelings

Our understanding of the connections between emotions and decisions has advanced considerably in recent years. The traditional view, at least among cognitive psychologists, was higher-level decision processes, were based on conscious, rational reasoning, the linear thought of our conscious narrative. Now we understand that the sophisticated parallel processing of the brain runs many calculations at once, too many for us to put into words in a conscious stream, but we are conscious of this processing. We are conscious of them as feelings, especially in our gut.

Why do we feel them in our gut? The first challenge to the idea of conscious choice was the research1 that discovered that our perceptions of situations form and affect our decisions before we are consciously aware of them. Through pairing of stimuli and response, we feel emotions that can guide our decisions. These emotions can guide our decisions before we are consciously aware of them. This has come to be called "somatic marker hypothesis." Somatic means "body" as opposed to "mind."

Our enteric (intestinal) nervous system is wired directly into the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that orchestrates our thoughts and actions in accordance with internal goals. When we get a feeling in our "gut," it is because our prefrontal cortex recognized elements of situations that we cannot or have not yet put into words.

Executive Functions

Research involving people with damage to their prefrontal lobes2 has found that these patients were described as "decides against his best interest," "doesn't learn from his mistakes," "is impulsive," "decisions lead to negative consequences," and so on.

What is the name that psychologist give these processes in the prefrontal cortex? Our executive functions. We would call these our warrior's mind for comparing and choosing.

When faced with unfamiliar and challenging situations, these automatic functions of our prefrontal cortex generate emotions that heavily influence our decision-making processes. We cannot consciously control these effects to force ourselves to make "rational" decisions that do not take our gut feelings onto account.

Knowing the Right Response

In contrast, if faced with familiar situations, we just as automatically respond in the ways that we have been trained to respond. In many ways, the choice of response is unconscious. We automatically respond to situations we recognize, focusing on the specific details of that response rather than choosing it.

As an article in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Science explains:

"Recent years have seen a dramatic surge in research seeking to understand the neural processes underlying how we make decisions and choices. These investigations have been initiated by both behavioral scientists, who have begun to see the usefulness of constraining theoretical models with information gleaned from studying the brain, and neuroscientists, who have become interested in using existing models of decision-making to examine neural processing."

Dangers of the Untrained Gut

However, research also shows that, without retraining our emotional reactions, our gut feelings can easily mislead us.

For example, research into decision biases3 shows that when making judgments, we tend to rely on information that is ready available rather than information that is critical. More recent research into the source of decisions errors4 identified two other common problems as lack of experience with a specific situation and, most importantly, ignoring anomalies because they didn't fit a subject's mental model of a situation.

Mental Simulations

The research into mental simulations, shows that the best path to better gut decisions is developing our recognition skills. We need a basis for recognizing the key elements in complex situation to generate the appropriate reactions. The system that we teach is, of course, Sun Tzu's strategy. We call its mental models the Nine Formulas. Without these models, people view competitive situations too simply. They gravitate toward using steps in a process, such as "the sales process." While simplistic processes work well for handling objects, they work poorly for handling people. Without more complete mental models, we cannot recognize anomalies. Sun Tzu system doesn't work against established processes, such as those in business or sports, but it augments them, giving us a bigger picture of our situation.

A Broader Basis for Good Decisions

This cross training in strategy's cognitive models gives people a broader, more stable basis for their emotional responses. To quote a recent article by Bruce G. Charlton. MD, the editor-in-chief of Medical Hypotheses, reviewing Damasio's latest work:

"I suggest that the somatic marker mechanism evolved specifically to perform the job of ‘strategic social intelligence'. Strategic can be contrasted with ‘tactical' social intelligence, which is found in many animals, and does not require large cognitive capabilities. Strategic social intelligence is the ability to perform internal cognitive modeling of social relationships, in order to understand, predict and manipulate the behaviour of others - and is found only in animals with a large pre-frontal cerebral cortex (humans and other apes and primates, dolphins, elephants and some other social mammals)."

This strategic focus on the broader pattern of relationships is precisely the focus offered by Sun Tzu's system and exactly why it is more satisfying in terms of gut reactions that process- oriented models.

Strategy and Planning

Both the trained, adaptive reflexes and linear, procedural thinking are required for the highest levels of performance. Research into expert levels of performance5 has also shown that anyone can become an expert in anything through training, but that we cannot retrain our gut reactions simply from reading and studying. In other words, reading Sun Tzu's work doesn't change the way you make decisions on a gut level. We can memorize a process easily enough, but that knowledge doesn't affect our gut reactions. This is because we cannot "memorize" those strategic relationships described by Charlton. The picture of those relationships is only built from our experiences.


Our gut reactions are only changed based on our experiences and how well those experiences are integrated into our mental simulations of situations. Most people's mental models are as chaotic as the world they try to model. The science about what is required for a useful mental simulation is fascinating. By training yourself in these models, we retrain our gut to react appropriately.

This training doesn't come just from book learning. Only by making decisions do you integrate these models into your automatic reactions. This is why our training, both live course and on-line training, constantly challenges you to make decisions. Only by making decisions in light of this model can you change the way you feel about being in competitive and challenging situations.

1 Bechara, Damasio, Tranel & Damasio (1997) Science 275: , 1293–1295
2 Dimitrov, Phipps, Zahn & Grafman, (1999) Neurocase 5: , 345–354
3 Kahneman, Slovic, Tversky (1992), Judgment under uncertainty: Hueristic and biases. Cambridge University.
4 Klein (1993), Source of error in naturalistic decision-making tasks, Proceeding of the Human Factors and Ergonomic Society 37th Annual Meeting
5 Ericsson and Charness (1994), Expert performance: Its structure and acquisition. American Psychologist.