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Your Gut Feeling

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The ancient notion of internal organs as cognitive resources has resurfaced in Claudia Dreyfus’s New York Times article, “Through Analysis, Gut Reaction Gains Credibility” (New York Times, August 28, 2007). Dreyfus interviews social psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, an expert on intuitive thinking, who claims that our gut feelings reflect our brains relying on environmental cues.  Heeding gut feelings can lead to solutions much quicker than rational analysis.

Ancient peoples in general believed that thought and consciousness presided in the gut, not in the head. Greeks of the Classic period believed that consciousness resided in the lungs, with the heart contributing emotional content. Lacking our modern knowledge of the circulatory system, Classic Greeks believed that aspects of human consciousness didn’t reside just in the lungs, but were distributed throughout the chest, with different organs contributing different attributes. Expressions like “venting our spleen” when angered represent the residue of these kinds of beliefs. During the process of mummification, ancient Egyptians discarded brain tissue as unnecessary for existence in the afterlife, but preserved the intestines, liver and other organs in special canopic jars for the journey. The heart, thought to be central to the individual’s “self” or consciousness, was left in place.

What appeared to classical societies as a characteristic of human anatomy has slowly, over the ages, become a metaphor. No one today believes that the seat of consciousness can be found in the heart or lungs, and yet the references persist. We refer to the act of memorization as "learning by heart." An example from popular culture illustrates this head/gut opposition:

Aragorn: No news of Frodo
Gandalf: No word. Nothing.
Aragorn: We have time. Every day Frodo moves closer to Mordor.

Gandalf: Do we know that?
Aragorn: What does your heart tell you?
Gandalf: (meaningful pause) That Frodo’s alive. Yes. Yes, he’s alive.
(The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, 2004)

In conditions of primary orality people assigned different aspects of cognition to different organs. We are content, in most cases, to let the heart represent all feeling or emotion and to assign to the “gut” an ability to intuitively grasp the proper solution to a problem. When placed in opposition to the head or intellect, the gut prevails in modern cultural references as the deeper source of wisdom and the more reliable arbiter of reality.

Here is the problem. If there is a deeper seat of wisdom that we all possess, why should anyone listen to academic specialists or experts of any type? Much of our current public debate between a faith-based versus reality based orientation may be a manifestation of this head/gut split. If the United States can be governed “from the gut”, what need is there for subject matter experts on foreign policy, economics or political agendas?

By providing intellectual credibility (from the head or the gut?) to this reification of archaic beliefs, Dr. Gigerenzer does a disservice to himself and to subject matter experts in general.

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