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Trust your Gut in Troubleshooting?

© February 2009 Anthony Lawrence

Turns out there is scientific evidence for intuition and gut feelings.

I really do trust my gut instincts. Even to me, that sounds like an odd thing to say. I'm a very logical and procedural person: a lot of the troubleshooting and problem solving I do is step by step, this follows from that, flow-chart, check-list, cause and effect all the way. And yet.. I trust my gut.

My Unix and Linux Troubleshooting Book has a lot of the procedural stuff in it - first you check this, then you check that - but even there I talk about intuition. For example, I mentioned solving a "network down" problem once by shutting down a server. There was no logical reason to shut it down. I hadn't even put my hands on its keyboard and I was 30 feet away from it when my "gut" decided it was at fault. I hadn't even had time to think about why the network was down because I had literally just walked into the room. All I knew was that I had a very strong feeling that something was wrong with that particular machine.

In the e-book I said:

To this day, I have no idea why that server was causing everything to reboot. I have no idea why I yelled at the three Mac experts (as it turned out, all three were Mac consultants) to shut that server down. Maybe I subconsciously knew that the server was new; as it turned out, it had been added to the network just a few days earlier. Maybe there was some sub-sonic sound it was making that some part of my brain picked up on. Maybe I just don't like people in suits working on computers. I really don't know. It was just intuition, and I'm sure it just as easily could have turned out with me being that crazy Unix guy who made them shut off a perfectly good server for no reason.

But intuition has fixed problems for me other times, too. I'm not going to get all Zen on you here, but your brain is full of stuff you don't even know that you know. Maybe I had overheard someone mention that there was a new Mac server in Editorial some other day. Maybe someone else had said it sounded louder than the other servers, or that his machine was a little "funny" since that new server was installed. If so, I had forgotten entirely, but maybe some lower part of my brain had not. That kind of thing has happened to me more than once, so when I get a hunch or a "feeling", I pay attention.

It turns out that some scientists think I'm right. At That gut feeling may actually reflect a reliable memory, a report from a Northwestern University study says:

During a special recognition test, guesses turned out to be as accurate or more accurate than when study participants thought they consciously remembered.

"We may actually know more than we think we know in everyday situations, too," said Ken Paller, professor of psychology at Northwestern. "Unconscious memory may come into play, for example, in recognizing the face of a perpetrator of a crime or the correct answer on a test. Or the choice from a horde of consumer products may be driven by memories that are quite alive on an unconscious level."

The study links lucky guesses to valid memories and suggests that people need to be more receptive to multiple types of knowledge, Paller said.

While this study may provide some validation, plenty of people have recognized the reality of instinct and intuition. There was the book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, but did it really take that and a scientific study to convince you? No, if you are a "gut instinct" type person, you already know that it works. And if not?

Well, that's the odd thing. My wife doesn't trust gut feelings - or at least she says she doesn't. I think she actually does, but she realizes that there are limitations. Your gut reaction is probably worth trusting if you think someone is lying to you but it's less valuable when the decision involves math.

In that "Troubleshooting" book I mentioned that I often have dreams where I notice that my dreaming mind can't add up simple numbers. It doesn't know what 5 plus 7 plus 8 is. It barely comprehends two plus two. However, it never seems to be unsure of its answers: if I have to add three small numbers together in a dream, I'll get an answer. The answer won't make sense - it might even be smaller than one of the numbers being added, but that doesn't bother my dreaming mind a bit. I think that's important to remember when deciding how much to trust your gut. I said:

Remember that those inner urges are just that: urges, tendencies, suggestions. It's up to you, the rational part, to analyze the whole picture and make the best decision. So what if your subconscious doesn't like some of those decisions and wants to churn up your stomach? That's the same part of your brain that can't add up three numbers. It's great at seeing details you didn't notice, it may remember things you've forgotten, but it can't add up three numbers. That's not the worst of it though: the worst is that it thinks it can add up those numbers and it's absolutely positive that it has the right answer. That's why it churns up your stomach: it thinks you are doing the wrong thing. Maybe you are, but remember: it can't add. I'm not telling you to ignore inner feelings, just not to embrace them as ultimate wisdom.

The scientific studies seem to agree. If the decision involves simple math or the weighing of two or three variables, it's probably good to take out pencil and paper and do the math or write down the "good points/bad points" chart. But when it gets more complicated, when there are unknowns and it's hard to know how to weight some values, it's time to let the gut tell you what to do.

And if it's wrong? Well, you make mistakes with math, too. Procedural rules don't always lead to the best answer either, so don't get too upset about it.

Now quick, what's 5 + 3 + 8? My subconscious just said "Nine". Great..

Got something to add? Send me email.

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Inexpensive and informative Apple related e-books:

Take Control of Apple Mail, Third Edition

iOS 10: A Take Control Crash Course

Take Control of iCloud

Take Control of Parallels Desktop 12

Take Control of the Mac Command Line with Terminal, Second Edition

More Articles by © Anthony Lawrence

Thu Feb 12 16:46:32 2009: 5394   bob4linux

Decades ago I did a speed reading course. The final exam was a speed and comprehension test after reading a short story. The examiner told us to just guess the answers if not sure. I clocked 3000 words per minute at 95% comprehension. That night I had the most vivid dream of my life and in the dream the entire short story replayed in glorious Technicolor. Without having had that dream I would never have really known what I knew.


Thu Feb 12 19:35:51 2009: 5395   TonyLawrence

Now THAT is something, isn't it?

Thu Feb 12 21:50:02 2009: 5399   NickBarron

I love guy feelings they can be really useful, my Mum is constantly getting them and the majority of the time they seem to point in the correct direction.

It is very odd as like you I track down and troubleshoot issues logically in a step by step manor. But there is definitely something to be said for the old gut instinct.


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