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THOM BARKER: Have you got the guts not to trust your gut?

Thom Barker
Thom Barker - Contributed

My gut tells me not to trust my gut.

We humans are emotional beings, often governed by how we feel about things. In fact, there is an entire industry that has grown out of the concept of “emotional intelligence” in recent years.

My gut tells me this is dangerous.

Of course, it is not really my gut telling me this, it is my experience. Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychology professor at Northeastern University, argues that emotions are not hardwired, but learned. She bases this not on a gut feeling, but on years of research, evidence and expertise.

My experience backs that up. If emotions were hard-wired, we should all react to emotion-evoking situations the same way. Everyone who knows even one other human being knows that is not the case.

We often experience emotion as tension in our stomachs, or more accurately in our enteric nervous system, the network of neurons that governs the function of our gastrointestinal tracts. The enteric nervous system has the second highest concentration of neurons in the human body.

Hence the old saying “trust your gut.”

And trust is what it all comes down to.

Millennia ago, it was common knowledge the Earth was flat and the sun revolved around us. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, we trusted our observations that the ground we were standing on is stationary and that if you looked out across great distances, aside from natural gradations of geography, it certainly appeared to be flat.

We now know it is round—or to be accurate an oblong spheroid—that revolves around the sun and the reason it feels stationary and looks flat is because, well, physics.

If I stand out on Fox Point and look out across the sea, my gut still tells me Earth is flat and stationary. There are still those who believe that, but most of us trust millennia of cumulative human knowledge more than our personal powers of observation in this particular case.

Our initial experience with trust is based on our reliance as babies and young children on adults to keep us alive. We soon learn, however, that even our parents cannot be completely trusted—spoiler alert for any precocious six-year-olds who may be reading this—when we find out Santa Claus is not real.

Babies are not skeptical or credulous by nature, we are trained to trust and distrust, initially by our parents, or parental surrogates, and later by life itself. For each of us, all of that gets rolled up into a personal narrative that guides our reactions to everything.

For example, my gut tells me there is something fishy about this numbered company in St. John’s that is leasing land to Canopy Growth for its cannabis facility.

I have no direct evidence of anything untoward happening, but my gut does not trust people who hide behind numbered companies to do business. My gut does not trust people who run corporations to act in the best interests of anybody but themselves. My gut also does not trust Liberal governments to hold those corporations accountable.

Of course, sometimes my gut is conflicted. My gut tells me that the fact Ches Crosbie is leading the charge to ferret out whether there is a fire burning under the pot smoke, means my gut might be wrong because the only politicians my gut finds more untrustworthy than Liberals are Conservatives.

My gut tells me my gut has good reason to feel this way based of a history of financial scandal upon political scandal upon personal scandal dating back to Sir John A. MacDonald and at every level of government.

We tend to trust our guts, I think, because we have little choice. The sheer vastness of cumulative human knowledge combined with how busy most of us are just living our lives, makes it virtually impossible to know much of anything with great certainty.

I favour Professor Barret’s conclusions, not because I have examined all the research, but because I trust her expertise. If I am being honest, though, I trust her expertise largely because it fits my personal narrative. My gut tells me she is right.

Fortunately, we also have brains. My brain tells me that my gut is often wrong. My brain tells me I should demand more proof of the nature versus nurture regarding emotional intelligence. My brain tells me that there are good and bad apples among business people and among Liberals and Conservatives.

My brain tells me that my gut is not a decision-making tool, but a starting point for further investigation. My brain tells me that regardless of how my gut feels about Conservatives, I should be cheering Mr. Crosbie on to get to the bottom of the Canopy situation.

The spherical Earth did not become fact because ancient Greek philosophers had a gut feeling flat Earth observations were wrong. It became fact because subsequent technological advancements made it possible for scientists and explorers to practically demonstrate that now almost universally-accepted reality.

I am not saying we should ignore our guts completely, but anyone who blindly trusts their guts is not using their brain, which, by the way, has 200 times the number of neurons as the enteric nervous system.

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