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I'm thinking of a phenomenon that I've first observed in myself when taking an IQ test. Upon looking at the question, I selected an answer, but got this "gut feeling" or a hint that something was wrong with my response. Upon seeing the answers, the question was indeed answered incorrectly. I've observed this phenomenon several more times in different situations and can define it as a very quick flash of awareness or feeling that quickly subsides.

What is the neuroscience behind such "gut feelings" or "intuitions"?

I'm particularly interested if such "almost" answers are some form of cognitive process, where some neurons fire, but not enough to produce a fully formed insight/idea/judgement.

Because the question that I was originally trying to answer was not lexical, but involved some rational thinking, I do not believe that this is exactly the "tip of the tongue" phenomenon.

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3 Answers

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Intuition and implicit learning

I recommend you have a read through Lieberman's (2000) review and theory article on intuition.

Lieberman argues that intuition is a cognitive and behavioural consequence of implicit learning processes. Intuition is contrasted with more deliberate thought processes. It also reflects situations where it is often not possible to articulate the reasons for a decision or belief.

These links with implicit learning are extensive. Much of skilled performance is performed automatically without conscious effort. We also build extensive associations between stimuli and decision relevant information. Furthermore, processes of learning can lead us to forget the reasons why something is true or why something is good, while retaining the fact that it is true or that it is good.

Lieberman suggests various neural components important to intuition:

It is concluded that the caudate and putamen, in the basal ganglia, are central components of both intuition and implicit learning, supporting the proposed relationship.

Answering multiple choice questions

Your specific question concerns answering multiple choice questions.

One explanation of the phenomena you describe is that you may retrospectively analyse your feeling of doubt once you know the correct answer. You may dwell more on your feelings of doubt when you get an answer wrong, but presumably are less likely to do so on the questions where you had doubt but ultimately got the question right.

More generally, partial knowledge is not unusual when answering multiple choice questions. And presumably that feeling of uncertainty regarding the correct answer could come about by either deliberate reasoning or some intuitive unarticulated reason.

References

  • Lieberman, M. D. (2000). Intuition: a social cognitive neuroscience approach. Psychological bulletin, 126(1), 109. PDF
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The book The Power of Habit brought up a tale in the first chapter about a man who lost the capability of storing long term memory because of brain damage. He could not remember conversations or TV shows he watched just 10 minutes ago. He could still walk and have normal conversations, just that he would repeat the same questions.

However, his man was able to learn new things because a part of his brain (the basal ganglia) stored habits. He kept his old habits, like cooking bacon for himself every morning. He developed new habits like walking outside and coming back, even though he could not remember the road back to his house.

They did a basic memory test by joining objects to different colored cardboard rectangles. Under some of the rectangles the word "correct" was written. Most people can easily memorize which objects are "correct" within a few minutes. As this man had brain damage, he could not remember it no matter how hard he tried.

After a few days of repeating the same tests, he got up to 85% success, then 95% success. He did not remember any of this. To him, he had never seen the objects before and had a gut feeling of which objects were "correct". The inference here is that they were stored in the part of the mind that stores routines/habits. (Duhigg, 2012)

I would assume that a "gut feeling" works in a similar manner. You see have seen certain patterns repeated several times, and it develops into a routine in your brain. Long after these patterns have been removed from your conscious memory, you still have them stored somewhere in the form of a routine. They're especially noticeable with trivia knowledge. People who work in the fire department develop a 'sixth sense' for dangerous situations because they've observed the same cues that occur before a dangerous situation multiple times.

To summarize, a gut feeling is likely a recollection of certain micropatterns that you've seen several times before.

Source: Duhigg, C. (2012). The Habit Loop: How Habits Work, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.

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Our research and clinical studies with hundreds of people over a 40 year period as educators and counselors revealed to us that people have gut feelings that relate to two specific instinctual needs and gut responses of acceptance (attention) and freedom (control of one;s one responses). Our gut feelings of emptiness and fullness (not to be confused with hunger) reveal how well these needs are being met and how well they are in balance. Our experience with people indicated that intuitive intelligence is dependent upon our awareness of these gut feelings. We invite you to explore our work in our book "What's Behind Your Belly Button? A Psychological Perspective of the Intelligence of Human Nature and Gut Instinct" and come peruse our blog on the subject of gut feeling: http://instinctualgutfeelings.blogspot.com

Martha Love and Robert Sterling

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That sounds interesting. Any thoughts about how your theory of gut instinct might be applied to the OP's context of answering questions on an IQ test? –  Jeromy Anglim Feb 13 '13 at 5:27
    
Jeromy, our research and clinical findings with the Somatic Reflection Process on gut feelings showed that awareness of the gut response is a pathway to our feeling memory, i.e. what the impact of experience is upon us in life and what is held in our unconscious. So, our gut feeling about a test answer most likely relates to a stored memory in our unconscious from an experience in our past. –  Martha Love Feb 13 '13 at 10:49
    
It would be interesting to see if reflecting on gut instinctual feeling via the protocol we offer of the Somatic Reflection Process (SRP) would increase one's ability on IQ test. We did find using the SRP significantly increased some markers for Emotional Intelligence. –  Martha Love Feb 13 '13 at 11:03
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