Ever have a hunch that something is about to go terribly wrong? It may just be paranoia. On the other hand, as researchers at the State University of New York at Stony Brook suggest, it may be an entirely accurate gut feeling based on subtle, unconscious comparisons with past events.

When a person gets a hunch or premonition, it may not be all that mysterious, it could be because that person is in a situation that has been associated with some event in their past – they might not consciously remember it but their visceral organs (heart, liver, intestines) do. This results in the “funny” feeling that something is going to happen.

In their research, the team tested whether or not gut feelings might accurately predict events, and which sensory cues worked to provoke such hunches.

Including 36 male and female undergraduate students aged 18 to 41, the researchers first measured each participant’s general sensitivity to stimuli by assessing their ability to accurately monitor their own heartbeat while simply sitting still. One third were determined to be good ‘heartbeat detectors’, while the remaining two-thirds were judged to have poor sensitivity in that respect.

They then showed all the students films of spiders and snakes mingled with abstract images – moving too quickly for the students to consciously register what they saw. Upon a first viewing, small shocks were administered randomly following certain images. Upon a second viewing, the students were asked to predict when the shocks would occur.

Researchers report that those students who had been determined to have high sensitivity to sensory cues – the good heartbeat detectors – predicted the occurrence of shocks better than those who had poor sensitivity.

They conclude that even though none of the students could recognize any of the images they had seen, those with high sensitivity had absorbed the images subconsciously and linked them intuitively with their initial shock experience.

While the association between accurate gut feelings and subconsciously registered stimuli may ultimately involve other additional influences, the connection appeared to be clear and substantial. We may consciously forget certain past experiences, but our bodies have a more lasting memory than our consciousness does and we respond to these experiences with our gut feelings. There are individual differences in how sensitive people are, so that those who are more in tune with their bodies are more likely to have these gut feelings.

The researchers caution that the findings should not be viewed as proof that all intuitions, feelings, or hunches have solid foundations.

First published in the Inside Tract® newsletter issue 130 – March/April 2002
Psychological Science 2001;12,5