Psychologist Emma Seppälä Explains The Science of Intuition and Gut Feelings—And Why Trusting Them Could Change Your Life

UPDATED: May 1, 2024
PUBLISHED: May 1, 2024
headshot of Emma Seppälä, who explains the science of gut feelings

“I’ve got a gut feeling about it.” “She has incredible instincts.” “I just get a bad vibe from that guy.” 

Feelings, a sixth sense, a hunch or just vibes—whatever you want to call it—at some point throughout our lives, we all use our intuition. What if we told you that scientific research actually supports trusting your gut feelings and intuition, and that doing so can improve your decision-making, creativity and overall well-being?

“We’ve been trained out of doing that,” says psychologist and research scientist Emma Seppälä Ph.D. “When you go to school, you learn to use logic and reason and to squash any quote-unquote ‘magical thinking.’ And yet it is an instinct—it’s designed to save our lives.”

Emma Seppälä’s new book on the science of gut feelings

Seppälä is a lecturer at Yale, where she teaches leadership at the Yale School of Management, and she’s the science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. In her new book Sovereign: Reclaim Your Freedom, Energy, and Power in a Time of Distraction, Uncertainty, and Chaos, she outlines a number of strategies for living a fuller and more authentic life, and that includes the importance of trusting your intuition.

“The book is called Sovereign with this idea that there are different ways in our life in which we don’t allow ourselves to access our fullest potential and possibility,” Seppälä explains. “And intuition is one of our strengths—if we tap into it.”

Some people are better at doing this than others. Maybe you have a friend who has good instincts, or who always goes with their gut. But Seppälä, who’s also the author of The Happiness Track, says you can train your intuition like any other mental or physical faculty. It’s part of our cognition, and something that can be developed alongside logic and reason. 

Intuition is a real cognitive process: The brain uses past experiences, physiological sensations, environmental factors and more to help us in the decision-making process. And it can happen so quickly that we don’t always realize it’s happening. In her book, Seppälä calls it an “elegant, fine-tuned and incredibly rapid form of perception.” 

Hone and access your intuition

One way to hone your intuition is by letting your brain get into “alpha wave mode,” which is when you’re awake and relaxed, but not focusing on anything in particular. Maybe you’re taking a walk or meditating, or even, Seppälä quips, in the shower, where we often tend to have ourselves a little epiphany. “If you want to learn to access your intuition,” she says, “it’s making time for those moments.”

Seppälä knows this can be increasingly difficult to do. We live in an era in which information is all around us, and we can go all day with our faces in front of a screen, which is why she says to be intentional about it. Try washing the dishes without turning on a podcast, or just sit in silence for a minute and let your mind wander. 

It’s also possible to have intuition physiologically. For example, if you’re around a person who seems untrustworthy, your logical mind may not have caught on to the danger in the ongoing situation, but maybe your heart rate has increased, or your palms are sweating. 

“What that means is, physiologically, you are registering inauthenticity,” Seppälä says. “And that is registering as a threat, because when something is inauthentic, your body doesn’t know what’s going to happen.” 

Heed your gut feelings

Seppälä says it’s also important to give yourself permission to take the “gut feeling” seriously, in addition to allowing yourself to feel and trust in your emotions. She refers to the concept of interoception, or the ability to sense internal body sensations: heart rate, respiration, temperature, pain, emotion. It’s the ability to turn your awareness inward and take messages from your body.

“It’s imperative to use your logic and reason and intellect, of course,” she continues. “But you have to follow your intuition. If you don’t follow your intuition, you’re not living the life you want to be living, you know?”

All of this intuition relates to the concept of sovereignty, because trusting in it can help you become a more self-aware, and therefore more fulfilled person. Rather than stamping down our instincts when we know something feels off, or stopping ourselves from going after something we want because it’s not a sure thing, what if we allowed ourselves to go after what we felt we should do?

“How many people have gotten married to someone they knew they shouldn’t have? Bought a house they knew they shouldn’t have? Gotten a job that, if they look back on it, yeah, it looked right on paper, but the feeling wasn’t right?” Seppälä asks. “Everybody’s had this experience.”

It can be a matter of life and death. Seppälä shares the story of Kushal Choksi, a New Yorker who’d just gotten to work on 9/11 as the twin towers were hit. While security was telling people to stay in place, he bolted for the doors. That feeling—I shouldn’t be here—spared his life. 

When it comes to following your intuition, have courage and take risks

And that’s not to say that it’ll always be easy. There’s an element of willingness to take risks involved in following your intuition, in choosing to listen to a feeling or an emotion rather than (or in addition to) following data or hard information. The decision to walk out of that relationship or say yes to that job across the country might be what you feel is right—but it might also look like craziness or a big risk to the people around you.

“One of the things I talk about with regard to sovereignty is that it takes both awareness—you need to know what’s up, you need to know what your intuition is, you need to be aware—but it also takes courage,” Seppälä says. “Often the most successful people are people who went with their awareness, went with their gut, but also went with courage to do something different.”

“It’s not that you should listen to your intuition only,” she adds. “But make room to consult it.”

Photo courtesy of Nardi Media/Emma Seppälä

Cassel is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor, a co-owner of Racket MN, and a VHS collector.