How do geese know when to fly to the sun? Who tells them the seasons? How do we, humans know when it is time to move on? As with the migrant birds, so surely with us, there is a voice within if only we would listen to it, that tells us certainly when to go forth into the unknown.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, Swiss psychiatrist

Here’s a thought-provoker. What if your gut tells you one thing but your brain pushes you in the opposite direction? As we all know, there’s no fool like an old fool (if you’ve not learnt your lessons by now, you’re an even bigger fool….etc etc).

Perhaps what you hear from your instinct is unpalatable; perhaps it’s inconvenient. Whatever is going on in that brain of yours, when your guts tells you one thing and your conscious mind another, it’s definitely a conflict. You’re hearing from two different parts of the brain, which work in different ways, and are differently evolved (and have different purposes). We’ve got the reptilian brain (instinct), working on the basis of things you might not consciously recognise (small signals, tiny reflections of past experiences), and the conscious, modern brain, working on logic, rationale; “sensible” stuff, the stuff you can see, can count, can list.

Much modern wisdom advises us to trust our instincts; to have confidence in them. But instinctive feelings – more often than rationale – are often characterised by doubt. So, what’s the maths?

Early in 2007, a team from University College London reported findings to the effect that people make better decisions when they don’t think too hard about them – even when the tasks or decisions facing them involve things like counting.ย  Many of you out there will have read Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating book, Blink, which comes from the same viewpoint. The subconscious mind works very hard, peddling away for you, while the lazy old conscious mind looks like it’s doing all the work.

So, back to the beginning: resolving instinct/cognitive brain conflict. Perhaps the safest thing to remember is that instincts put the self first; they are all about survival. That can make you greedy (wanting more than your fair share) or just wary (been here before – don’t make the same mistakes!). If anyone knows any interesting work or has any observations on this, would be fascinating to hear more, so I can witter away at greater length at a later date.

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