MindLAB Neuroscience Neuroscience-based Life Coaching logo featuring a polygonal brain icon.

How to Master Your Intuition and Know When to Trust Your Gut

How to Master Your Intuition and Know When to Trust Your Gut

Intuition is when we know something without knowing exactly why we know it. It’s knowledge that isn’t based on conscious thinking or reasoning, but a “deep down” understanding that can be difficult to verbalize or share with others.

Intuition is when we know something without knowing exactly why we know it.

It’s knowledge that isn’t based on conscious thinking or reasoning, but a “deep down” understanding that can be difficult to verbalize or share with others.

Psychologists define intuition as an “unconscious associative process.” Basically, it’s super fast pattern recognition that takes place below the surface of our consciousness.

Only a small fraction of your brain is actually dedicated to conscious behavior, like reasoning and decision-making. The rest of your brain is working behind the scenes: recognizing patterns and associations in your environment outside of your conscious awareness.

When an idea or insight “clicks” with us, our brains are recognizing a pattern, even though we can’t fully explain what that pattern is or why we know it.

Often our intuition is a combination of an idea with a physical sensation: like a gut feeling, or a tingling of the skin, or a change in heartbeat or breathing.

These physical changes are often what grab our attention when we have an insight about something – and what can make an idea “stand out” to us as important or significant.

In the many years of research I have conducted on this, I have found that unequivocally our intuition can play a very important role in the choices we make and how we live our lives. 

There are two types oft psychologically recognized thinking processes.

  • System 1 – fast, instinctive, and emotional
  • System 2 – slow, deliberate, and rational

Both types of thinking serve a useful purpose in our everyday choices and decision-making.

Often we think of “thinking” as System 2, something that takes a lot of effort and attention, like solving a difficult math problem, or calculating a monthly budget, or deciding what college to go to. 

System 2-type thinking also includes logical thinking, problem-solving, memorizing facts, and neuropsychology, where we actively question our thoughts and try to reframe them in a more healthy and productive way.

Reading this article is another example of System 2, because it takes energy to focus, understand, and absorb the information.

Intuition falls into “System 1”-type thinking because it happens automatically and without any effort.

“System 1” thinking can be just as powerful and useful as “System 2.” 

In certain situations, too much analytical thinking can actually lead to worse decision-making, because we over-rationalize our choices and end up steering ourselves in the wrong direction.

System 1 thinking is also more pragmatic and convenient, because it requires less willpower and mental resources. 

Instead of over-thinking every tiny decision, our minds often use heuristics and guidelines to expedite the decision-making process and not spend too much energy on trivial things.

For example, when trying to decide what to eat for lunch on Friday, your mind likely doesn’t do an in-depth “costs vs. benefits” analysis to choose the best place to go (System 2). Instead, you probably follow some easy rule-of-thumb such as, “I usually go to McDonalds on Fridays” (System 1).

That’s a simple illustration of “System 1”-type thinking in our everyday lives, but it can also have many other advantages.

Intuition often works best in situations where there’s:

  • Information overload – There’s too much information to digest it all consciously in a specific situation.
  • Time pressure – We don’t have enough time to reason through a problem thoroughly before we need to act.
  • Environmental cues – When a cue from our environment triggers our brain in a novel way that suggests a specific action (also known as “situational awareness”).

All of these are conditions that can lead to the necessity of System 1 thinking.

The simple truth is that it’s impossible to expect ourselves to be able to consciously rationalize every choice we make in life. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut and take a risk, especially if you feel strongly about it.

amazing examples of how intuition can be a reliable guide in certain situations. 

In one example, a Formula One driver during a race was randomly motivated to break sharply when nearing a turn. He didn’t know why, but as a result he avoided hitting a pile-up of cars on the track ahead which ended up saving his life. 

According to Professor Hodgkinson, the lead researcher of the study:

  • “The driver couldn’t explain why he felt he should stop, but the urge was much stronger than his desire to win the race. The driver underwent forensic analysis by psychologists afterwards, where he was shown a video to mentally relive the event. In hindsight, he realized that the crowd, which would have normally been cheering him on, wasn’t looking at him coming up to the bend but was looking the other way in a static, frozen way. That was the cue. He didn’t consciously process this, but he knew something was wrong and stopped in time.”

In this case, there was an environmental cue that triggered the drivers intuition to slow down. He didn’t exactly know why, but he “felt” compelled to.

In many cases, doctors “gut feelings” have even greater diagnostic value than most symptoms and signs, especially when doctors could sense that something was “wrong” with a patient even if an examination suggested otherwise.

In similar ways, our intuition can be something that is worth following in our everyday lives.

Here are useful guidelines to help you effectively build and master your intuition.

Be experienced

Our intuition is strongest and most reliable when it is about something we have a lot of experience in.

In both examples above, the individuals exercising their intuition are those with a lot of exposure to these particular situations. 

The Formula One driver is familiar with participating in many races. And doctors are familiar with treating many sick patients. 

Both have a keen awareness of their craft that stretches far beyond how an “average” individual would experience these situations.

As a general rule, the more experience you have with a situation, the more comfortable you should be following your intuition. 

On the other hand, beware of “gut feelings” about stuff you know nothing about and have little experience in.

Improve awareness

The better our awareness is, the easier it is to pick up on intuitive feelings.

As mentioned before, intuition is often accompanied by physical sensations, so being attuned to our bodies can be incredibly important for assessing how our minds are interpreting a situation.

Our mind isn’t just limited to the workings of our brain, but our nervous system as a whole. This is why so many emotions and feelings have a body component to them. 

Therefore, to understand your internal processes, it’s important to watch your body and be alert when it’s telling you something.

Practice in small and safe ways

Like all skills, intuition is something that needs to be practiced before it is mastered.

That doesn’t mean you should start practicing your intuition on the stock market, investing your life savings – but there are small and harmless ways you can become a more intuitive thinker.

One small thing I do is practice guessing the temperature whenever I’m outside. I take a moment to step back, feel the air and humidity, make a guess in my head, and then check to see how accurate I was on my phone’s weather app. 

It doesn’t have any real consequences, so it’s a safe way to sharpen my intuitive abilities.

Small exercises like this provide a way for me to reflect on my feelings and sensations, then make a guess about what they are telling me. I then see how right or wrong my intuition is, and recalibrate the next time I do the exercise. 

Other small ways you can test your intuition are by guessing how fast you are driving before you look at the speedometer, or guessing what a friend is going to say to you before you tell them something.

Be creative. There are plenty of simple and easy opportunities to test your intuition on a daily basis.

Trust yourself

All intuition requires that we trust ourselves to some degree. If you always doubt your feelings, you won’t ever respond to them or test them out.

Have faith that your mind is capable of making accurate, intuitive guesses in situations where you have a lot of experience and practice.

The guidelines in this article are an excellent starting point for discovering your intuition. Visit my website to learn how I can help you master this in what I coined, “The Wise Mind”.

Share this post

Picture of Dr. Sydney Ceruto

Dr. Sydney Ceruto

A Pioneer in Neuroscience-Based Coaching

As the founder of MindLAB Neuroscience, Dr. Sydney Ceruto has been a leading force in integrating neuroscience into coaching and counseling for over two decades. With three master's degrees in psychology and two PhDs in behavioral and cognitive neuroscience, she is widely considered a top expert in her field.

Harnessing the power of neuroscience-based coaching, Dr. Ceruto's innovative approach focuses on neuroscience, neuroplasticity, and neural pathway rewiring to foster lasting positive change in mental health.

Dr. Ceruto holds esteemed memberships in the Forbes Executive Council, Positive Performance Alliance, Wharton Executive Education Program, the International Society of Female Professionals, and executive writing positions for Alternatives Watch, Brainz Magazine, and TED: Ideas Worth Spreading.

Dr. Ceruto's accomplishments include:

  • The 2022 CREA Award.
  • A lead research position at NYU Steinhardt.
  • Volunteer work with Covenant House and the National Alliance for Mental Health (NAMI).

Her science-backed method of Neural Rewiring has successfully guided thousands of clients toward happier, more productive, and more resilient lives.