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Alan Mozes, Psychological Science

Have a hunch that something’s about to go terribly wrong? It may just be paranoia. Or, researchers suggest, it may be an entirely accurate “gut feeling” based on subtle, unconscious comparisons with past events.

“The bottom line is that sometimes when people get a hunch, it’s not mysterious,” said study lead author Dr. Edward S. Katkin of the State University of New York at Stony Brook. “It’s because people are in a situation that has been associated with some event in the past–they might not consciously remember it but their guts do. And so they get a sense that something is going to happen.”

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

Their study included 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.

Katkin’s group classified one third of the individuals 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 intercut 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, students were asked to predict when the shocks would occur.

Katkin and his team 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.

The study findings will be published in the September issue of Psychological Science.

Katkin told Reuters Health that 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 these gut feelings,” he said. “And 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.”

However, Katkin cautioned that the findings should not be viewed as proof that all intuitions, feelings or hunches have solid foundations. “There are lots of people who are having inaccurate hunches all the time, and I can’t address that,” he said. “I don’t know why they do.”