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In Defense of Gut Feelings

Posted in Careers, Leadership, and Productivity

When young scientists are starting to build their careers, they are usually advised to seek a mentor. A good mentor can help in many ways. However, they can’t impart some of the essentials that young investigators may need the most, especially the skills used to identify and work successfully with talented people. Fortunately, we have an underutilized resource literally under our noses. In my experience with very senior investigators, the ones who have had the greatest success in leading and managing have learned to pay close attention to their literal gut feelings, even when they can’t explain the reasons behind these feelings.

Gut feelings are felt in the belly, which is rich in serotonin receptors. We pay close attention to our gut feelings when someone strongly disgusts us. But if we attend to these feelings more closely on a daily basis, the gut can be a subtle and reliable source of social intelligence. As part of the brain-gut axis, it is referred to by some neurogastroenterologists as a “second brain.” Working together, these two coordinated “brains” combine our stored cognitions of people with immediate perceptions.

It may seem strange and even counterintuitive (ironically) for a scientist to pay such close attention to “subjective” reactions. However, these feelings provide a valuable and complementary source of knowledge to the questioning and analysis you must undertake when working with people in lab settings – and in the world beyond the lab. The use of gut feelings when making decisions can’t be taught, but it can certainly be learned. In my next post I will describe how to take advantage of such feelings in a common situation for scientists, evaluating potential postdocs.