S2E16 Intuition

What is a gut instinct? Can you tell the difference between your gut, your emotions, or a premonition? In this episode, Dr. Rubin and Dr. Pete discuss intuition, how to access it, and how its existence is explained from both eastern spiritual traditions and western science. Fun fact: neurons (the cells that are in your brain) are also found in the human GI tract, so our gut instinct really is telling us something... Tune in to learn more about how to connect to and act from your intuition and inner wisdom.




Nikki: Pete, we're talking about one of my favorite things to talk about, which is maybe going to surprise some people today, which is intuition, hi.

Pete: How is that going to surprise people?

Nikki: Oh, well, because I think, I don't think when people think of cognitive behavioral therapy, I don't think intuition comes to mind as a common, like concept or judgment.

Pete: Notice your judgement Dr. Rubin.

Nikki: Well, I don’t know if that’s a judgment, I just think that that sort of… I think maybe some people would be surprised to hear like a clinical psychologists say, “yes, we're going to talk about intuition”. And this is like a really important thing to discuss and connect with in practice.

Pete: It's something that's relevant in all that I do both as a professor and working with athletes. It's a thing you can't teach. You can teach how to connect with it…

Nikki: That's what it is. You can teach how to access it. But you can't give someone an intuition. We all have that thing, though. That’s the thing.

Pete: Well, does everybody have it?

Nikki: Yeah. Well, I mean, I would love to start maybe, as I know, you and I both geek out on this. Maybe we could start by like talking about like neurons in the gut, right about the biology around it.

Pete: Should I give you a definition first.

Nikki: I'm going to say yes,

Pete: Your ability to understand something immediately without the need for conscious reasoning.

Nikki: Yeah, I dig that.

Pete: I went to Oxford this time.

Nikki: Oh okay, [inaudible 1:52] exam. Okay. We also, because to this point, it's like some people might ask themselves, like, ‘maybe I don't have intuition, maybe I don't have an intuitive sense’. And the answer is, yes, you do. It's like, how do we access it? So maybe we could start by talking about just this part of our body. And for listeners that aren't familiar about this, this blew my mind when I first learned this. In the GI tract, in our gastro intestinal system. It's the only other place in the human body where neurons exists, the same cells that are in the brain. Does this blow your mind when you learn this?

Pete: Like, yeah, I say that with clients, because I learned that the most concentrated neurons are in that area.

Nikki: Yes, that's right. Yeah. Well, and so when I first read this, I was like, “holy hell!” I mean, this is kind of amazing. So like, can you say a little bit more about what you learned about it, and sort of what you express when you're in therapy when you're teaching people about it?

Pete: So I grab my stomach I usually, I quiz and I'll say, like, “Where do you think the most neurons…”

Nikki: You mean, so for listeners, so you use some Socratic questioning as a good CBT therapist? That's right.

Pete: Socratic questioning, where do you think the most concentrated neurons are in your body? And oftentimes people think, what do you think, Nikki?

Nikki: I'd go brain,

Pete: The brain. And so I said, “Nope”. [inaudible 3:22] Insert emoji with the brain boy. It's the gut. And there's a name for that the enteric nervous system, which I didn't learn that in grad school.

Nikki: Well, I don't think that it was actually like as common knowledge, honestly,

Pete: We’re not that old…

Nikki: We're not, we did graduate 10 years. We graduated 10 years ago. I mean, that's, no exactly…

Pete: Oh it is the 10th anniversary, that's right.

Nikki: 2011…

Pete: Oh, so this will be our 10 year friend anniversary.

Nikki: No, it's our 11 year friend anniversary, because our internship’s last year… I stick to this stuff. Yeah, but 10 years since we…

Pete: Got it.  Okay, but it wasn’t long ago, we didn't…

Nikki: Yeah, but this wasn't talked about as much. This was like,

Pete: Well, it wasn’t.

Nikki: Like kind of a new thing in psychology research to be talking about. I mean…

Pete: That’s a shame.

Nikki: This is where, like, different wings of science sometimes are kind of doing their own things, I think and then eventually converge. I think it's…

Pete: So we’re playing nice in the sandbox.

Nikki: No, I think we're playing in the sandbox, it's more like parallel play. We don't know what the biologists are doing over there.

Pete: You began to play in the sandbox, well to know what the biologists are doing. Like if I…

Nikki: Oh, well that’s fair, yeah.

Pete: That sandbox is for biologists; that one’s for neurologists; that one’s for psychiatrist…

Nikki: Sure, yeah. We got to…

Pete: We got to all come together.

Nikki: Yeah, because it's all in the body.

Pete: Okay, thank you.

Nikki: That’s right.

Pete: That's what I'm getting at. So that's what we've learned, that's what we teach. And so I'll ask clients about that. They usually feel like really interested in it because everybody has had a gut feeling. And I think sometimes they feel that the gut feeling, like when you walk into a dark room… what's that psychological phenomena where like, you think something bad's going to happen, and then… but you remember it like you always are thinking bad things are going to happen, but the time it happens, and you think it's exactly what you were thinking was going to happen, oh my god, I was just…

Nikki: I just call that anxiety and then… because to that point. So and this is where people can get confused. And maybe we can kind of parse this apart a little bit for our listeners is that a lot of people confuse a gut feeling their intuition with emotions, and they're not the same. So a lot of people say, “my guts telling me something bad's going to happen”. I'm like, “that's not your gut talking. That's your gut’s not an Oracle, your gut doesn't predict what's going to happen, your gut is reading information in this moment, the neurons, and…” so I'll say to people, “why did evolution select for neurons in the gut?” And from some of the things I've read, some of like, the hypotheses, it's like, well, it's a long way to travel up the spinal column to bring information to the brain. So it's something and this is where mindfulness comes in. That it's something that's happening in this moment, and your body is taking in the data that's available. And it's very adaptive to try to read that without having to go through all the processing that our brains do. And when we talk a lot about how that processing our brains do, is often not very useful.

Pete: You’re so mad at the brain.

Nikki: That was funny. It's, like, really tickled me when you say that. Because I think it's like, I really actually like love brains so much

Pete: I know you do, it’s so funny.

Nikki: Yeah, it's actually that I'm so mad at our species for not compassionately understanding how brains actually work. That's really what it is, because I'm, like, brains are so awesome. They're just like, they are limited, you know what I mean, they're just, they're not God, they're not…

Pete: So there's a cognitive science of the way that we're processing that. So what I hear you saying is like, that's the cognitive science of how we process information? Because that gut or that enteric nervous system doesn't have to go up to the brain. It's kind of like when you put your hand on a hot stove. If you learn this in biology, it doesn't have to go to the brain to say, ‘oh, get that off’.

Nikki: Right, it's just like, ‘do this’. Yes.

Pete: And that's what I'm saying about like, the dark room analogy I was trying to give, which you're right, maybe it's anxiety. But there is also like, a social psychology phenomena of like, for example, listeners have known someone who said, “Oh, I had the feeling I was going to get in an accident that morning, and I got in an accident”.

Nikki: Oh, okay. So this is what it is. This is also important to distinguish.

Pete: Yeah, thank you.

Nikki: And I've talked about this, actually, we've talked about this recently was somebody. That's a premonition. And I tell people, I'm like a premonition and intuition are not the same thing. And so in psychology, we don't, unfortunately, there's not a lot of study around premonitions. And this is going to, there can be like, really hardcore scientists are going to say, there's no evidence for that. I will share this with patients, I've had premonitions before. And I think, and some people have them, some people don't. But I recognized that's not intuition. A premonition, again, I don't know why I've had them or what that means whatever, I don't understand how most things work in the universe. But that's not my gut. Intuition is happening in this moment, intuition is just with the data that's available. And intuition is really powerful, because it's telling us something that sometimes we don't want to listen to. Like, sometimes it's, because, again, our cognitive brains get in the way, and they tell us stories about like, let's say you walk into a dark room, and your intuition is like, something feels off in here. That’s different than something bad's going to happen. Right. And I try to get people to, and from a behavior standpoint, tune into listening, listening is behavior.

Pete: Well, how did you get to that?

Nikki: To this process?

Pete: Yeah, like how did you get to a place where you have a relationship with your intuition?

Nikki: With my intuition?

Pete: Yeah.

Nikki: That's a great question. I would say, it's interesting. I mean, I think that it's almost like I had to relearn how to have a relationship with it, I think. I think that…

Pete: Or unlearn.

Nikki: Well, I would argue we can't unlearn things. Like it's always I can learn to not reinforce some unhelpful learning, but I think that maybe when I was younger, I was more connected to it and then being a really verbal, chatty, problem solving…

Pete: Who you?

Nikki: Who me?... psychologist, I think [inaudible 9:38]

Pete: Wait…

Nikki: Who me? Yeah.

Pete: You cornering me inside of a conference room as we’re trying to leave and I was like, “I got to just get out”, but Nikki had to tell a story.

Nikki: I did. I really did. Pete always references that story. Is like a hard data point, how my brain…

Pete: How tall are you?

Nikki: Four ten.

Pete: So the six foot three man is ready to leave a conference room, and a 4’10” California girl was like, “I got to tell you this story”.

Nikki: He was like, “honey, we got to leave,”

Pete: So you had to relearn read learn,

Nikki: Yes, I had to really learn how to

Pete: [inaudible 10:18] her…

Nikki: Yes, on to the side and a really compassionate way, and then tune in to listening. And I think for me, the way that I've learned to access that is shocker of the year, not the sarcasm here, through mindfulness, and that, honestly like I also came to it, as I have, personally my mindfulness practices, through cognitive behavioral therapies. Because in dialectical behavior therapy, in DBT, intuitions referred to as wise mind. And so, listeners, you're welcome to Google emotion mind, reasonable mind and wise mind, which is a Venn diagram…

Pete: I used that in a session today,

Nikki: It’s such a great thing…

Pete: That never gets old.

Nikki: Well, it doesn't because I tell people, I'm like, “Look, this is just DBT being a part of the CBT family. This is just what CBT calls it.” I said, “This concept is found in every culture, every spiritual tradition”, and again, in biology, like, this is a part of our body. It's a part of our body that we want to listen to. But we have to make space to listen to it.

Pete: So we're calling it the enteric nervous system. It's also the second brain, which is important for listeners to recognize,

Nikki: There's a book called ‘The Second Brain’,

Pete: There's a book called ‘The Second Brain’. And it really taps into creativity. I don't know if you think about that. But the intuition, the gut, the second brain really allows us to access, like you said, things that you wouldn't have otherwise access. And I think part of that is creativity, which we talk a lot about here, curiosity, creativity, that's all part of that whole mindfulness journey.

Nikki: Absolutely. And I think, it's really just listening to our own inner wisdom. It's that voice that we all have inside of ourselves. And I think what's important to clarify here, especially if you're trying to clarify the difference between premonition or anxiety, which is ‘saying something bad's going to happen’. Intuition, I always say is not chatty. It's like very still, it's very ‘matter of fact’, sometimes it says, “I don't know”. Like, sometimes you'll be like, “my guts telling me I need, that I have to do this thing”. And I'm like, “I don't know. It doesn't sound like your gut to me. It sounds kind of intense. Like, is your gut saying that? Or is your gut saying, ‘maybe I don't have enough information yet? Maybe I don't know’.”

Pete: And gather more information.

Nikki: Correct. Sometimes intuition is really loud. And we don't want to listen to it. Like, I feel like a common example would be like someone's in a relationship that on the outside, like checks all the boxes, and maybe it's a really wonderful person, but something intuitively, something in someone's gut’s saying, “It's not right”. And they don't want to listen to that.

Pete: Yeah, exactly. Because we want to fall in love with what might be or what could be. And I think gathering data for many of us is hard, especially like when you live in a very impulsive culture, our culture is really impulsive.

Nikki: Oh, yeah. I mean, we're instant gratification. So we said it a lot in this podcast, that in the United States, that's a very, it's like a very American thing.

Pete: Yes. Yeah.

Nikki: Yeah. So okay, so Pete, I'm wondering, for you, then, I mean, I guess I’ll ask you the same question. What is your relationship with your intuition, or how did you come to learn to connect with it?

Pete: Well, I'm still learning. Because it's a process. It's a lifelong process. It's a journey. And definitely mindfulness and meditation. In Zen, we find that intuition is the state between the Universal Mind and one's individual discriminating mind, which is exactly like we're saying with wise mind.

Nikki: Yes. It's like between emotion mind and reasonable mind, it’s the same thing.

Pete: Exactly. Well, because we know Marsha Linehan, the developer of dialectical behavioral therapy, studied Buddhism.

Nikki: Zen Buddhism.

Pete: That's right. And that's how she developed this. And that's exactly where that comes from. Because, and that's why I use the word unlearn. I know that your behaviorism came in and said no such thing. And then I said, well, that's part of what we do in Zen. And I mentioned on here before the [inaudible 14:25] and so as we're trying to, like learn about teachings, it's really about unlearning preconceptions we have about belief systems, because that's what interferes with intuition, ultimately.

Nikki: That's right. There's actually, and I want to make sure I mentioned this on this episode, because I think it's such a wonderful example. Have you read the book ‘Blink’ by Malcolm Gladwell. Have you read that book?

Pete: No.

Nikki: Okay. I highly recommend it. And for any listeners, that it's highly recommended. Blink is basically a book about this. That's not, like if you read the back of the book, it doesn't say like Malcolm Gladwell is talking about intuition. But the whole book is about, and he's a great writer and very thorough researcher when he's doing a topic. And basically the book is about, I would say, kind of like about decision making and blink being like we make our most effective decisions in these, and again, he doesn't use this word so much, but this intuitive mindfulness based, moment based ways. And what research has found is that ineffective decisions are made when people make impulsive, emotion based decisions. And when they overthink, they go too much into the thinking mind. And so I've had so many patients over the years, come to me like separately and say, like, “have you ever read ‘Blink’, like this blink is like about intuition”. And I'm like, “I know, it's exactly that”. So, and again, if we bring in a behavioral lens, like, really conceptualizing this as a behavior, you can practice, you can practice accessing and listening to your intuition. And I actually also tell people, like, the way I like to teach access to it, and how I practice myself is, I like to start by actually locating that physical place in the body. So I'll say to people, like practice by using, in yoga, a lot of times we talk about, like the mind's eye, which is basically like if a listener right now close their eyes, and I said, “Can you locate your left ear lobe using your mind's eye?” Most people are like, “Yeah”. “Can you find your right kneecap, can you find the top of your head? Okay, now find the physical center of your body”. And I say that, and I'll go like, very literally, like wherever your physical center is, a lot of people at somewhere like behind the belly button right here just below that. And then I'll say, and just focus attention on that place.

Pete: Right there.

Nikki: Just right there. And it's so interesting, because, again, I've done this with tons and tons of people, what do people say when they're focusing their attention? They'll say, “Oh, I feel very still. I feel solid. I feel peace.” And I’ll say, “Okay, so now we know what you're connecting with your gut, your intuition, practice in that, that's the place.” And then I’ll say, “And then with time, you can start to listen to what it has to say.”

Pete: Which is hard for people. And that takes practice. And one thing, a thought that I keep having is like, whatever thought, whatever decision you're about to make is not your last. And I think that that's part of the overthinking piece of intuition. That we feel like this next decision is so big, that I need to have all of reasonable mind, all of the emotional mind. And try and find my gut at the same time because this is such a big decision, versus like, what if you just let that go and try not to overthink and mindfully connect that centerpiece and then see what comes up.

Nikki: Thank you for bringing that up. Because I think that is one very eloquently said. And two, extremely important because that comes back to this misunderstanding that like intuitions taught, like some people think it's going to tell you what's going to happen. And it's not, it's about making decision in this moment with the information available, and decision making, I was just like, it's risk taking, you're like, ‘Okay, and let's see what happens’. Like, I'll share the example that I always actually share with patients when talking about this with Pete and Pete’s part of this story, because it has to do with where I ended up for internship, which is, for me deciding to match at the place that Pete and I were interns at together, was an intuition based decision. Like at the time, I really wanted to move to New York. And I, whatever, for a lot of reasons, I knew it was going to be harder to match there, given my training and coming from California. And so it was absolutely in an intuitive decision, like what the information had available. And when I got there, it turned out to be one of the hardest years of my life. It turned out to be, and I always tell patients, that doesn't mean my intuition was wrong. And I didn't regret the decision. I was like, it was absolutely the right decision for me, just because it was hard. It didn't undo what my gut had been telling me, it was just my gut didn't know what was next.

Pete: Well, and that hard doesn't mean wrong.

Nikki: Correct.

Pete: And that's a piece that… Wait, so can you use your intuition to tell me the lottery numbers for next?

Nikki: Well see, that’s what I’m saying. Intuition is not… And it's, as I say over and over again to people, I’m like, “your guts not an oracle". Your gut is not an oracle…

Pete: There’s a movie about that, though, isn't there?

Nikki: Well, ‘The Matrix’?. There's an oracle in ‘The Matrix’. Yeah so, Pete, thank you for sharing, about how you teach intuition and your practice with it. And I just want to leave listeners with this concept that you have a gut, you have neurons in there. And because of that, you have intuition that is always available to you to connect with and listen to, and if you slow down and begin to practice connecting with it, you can listen to what he has to say.

Nikki: This has been When East Meets West. I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin,

Pete: And I'm Dr. Pete Economou. Be present, be brave.

Pete: This has been When East Meets West all material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors Pete Economou and Nikki Rubin.

Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.