Making Decisions, Gut v. Mind

In our middle school and elementary school Autism Social Skills Groups this week we discussed the value of "thinking from the gut" and learning to balance the instinct of the gut with the logic of the mind. Depending on your individual constitution, either the gut or mind can be an overwhelming voice, but it is key to strike a system of checks and balances between the two. Children on the Autism Spectrum often have difficulty with the executive functioning provided by the mind which allows planning, anticipation of consequences, and organizational skills, so it may seem dangerous to suggest that they dilute a scarce resource by listening more to the gut. It is important to understand the distinction between instinct and impulse. Impulse comes from the brain demanding that it get what it perceives as necessary to survival immediately, while instinct is a tapping in to a deeper wisdom that we all have access to. Impulse is immediate, instinct comes from taking a moment to calm the body and silence the mind.

The mind is endlessly looking backwards over the tapes we create from previous experience, asking, "what is this situation like/different from" and "is this dangerous/safe". The single job of the mind is to ensure survival of anything that it associates with itself, which means always needing to be right. This creates a feedback loop of justifications that, counterintuitively can lead to poor decision making. Because of this (very useful) primary mission of the mind, it is great at ensuring our overall survival, but not always the best for everyday decision making tasks which are better served sometime by listening to instinct.  To use an example provided by a group member, imagine your child experiences peer pressure to play a video game rated M for Mature. The process of the mind would be to quickly determine that there was no existential threat to physical well-being posed by this, and then move on to ensuring the survival of the social self, which is sometimes served by following the group. In this situation the mind might say go, while the gut, the voice of instinct and wisdom says stop. 

Here are some quick tips for recognizing the gut vs. the mind:

The Gut:

  • Only says yes or no.
  • Does not answer immediately, comes after taking a breath.
  • Answers from a place of instinct/wisdom.

The Mind:

  • Justifies, uses logic.
  • Answers from a library of past experiences.
  • Seeks to ensure it's own safety/survival.

Further Reading:

Mind Matters: Toward a Theory of Mind

Finding Your Stream

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