You may have noticed how a feeling of impending doom has come just before an uncomfortable or dangerous situation. Is it just imagined, or is there more to it?
Your nervous system is constantly processing input from all your senses, as well as internal processes (e.g. memory). It is very good at recognizing patterns – when it notices that a certain pattern of input can lead to danger, it remembers that. When that pattern crops up again, it can create a sense of unease – even if the logical conscious part of your brain hasn’t noticed/made a connection.
Without your conscious brain even being notified, your body starts making preparations. Adrenaline production might increase; your digestive system might be put on hold. These subtle physiological responses are noticed by you as a “gut feeling” (incidentally, since your gastrointestinal system is so tightly involved in the process, it often really is a feeling in your gut).
Sometimes, the cues are wrong. If you’re at the zoo and you go into the insect room and look at a terrarium with 50 tarantulas in it, it might set off your physiological responses, even if consciously you know you’re perfectly safe.
Studies have shown that we can identify certain things, like danger or anger, faster than our brain cognitively realizes.
People have physical responses (minute ones) when they are shown a picture of an angry person for milliseconds at a time. It is faster than our “active” train of thought can process, but our “gut” recognizes the anger and starts making preparations/getting ready for a potential threat. In these cases, our gut seems to have a more direct line to our visual input than our own conscious selves have. Daniel Kahenman calls the “gut” in this scenario “system 1” which makes snap judgements based on assumptions, biases, and heuristics. It is faster than our “system 2” which is more deliberate in decisions. System 1 is great at identifying threats (though will throw false positives, as another comment noted).
Another piece to this that helps explain the “more often than not” piece of your question has to do with some other things our brains are really good at…namely confirmation bias and motivated reasoning. It’s likely that you get that feeling plenty of times and absolutely nothing happens, but that feeling primes you be looking for something bad, so much so that you might interpret something as uncomfortable or dangerous even if you wouldn’t have otherwise. That’s the motivated reasoning piece. The confirmation bias piece comes in because you pretty unlikely to place any significance on that feeling when nothing happens…so you probably won’t t remember it…but when you have that feeling and it turns out it was right, that feels pretty significant so you’re more likely to remember it.
Fear is a response to the unknown when it might be dangerous, curiosity is a response to the unknown when it’s deemed as safe.
When you notice something out of place and get the gut feeling, flip the fear to curiosity. Actively ask questions in your head. Ex. What’s different about this person? What do I not know about this unusual aspect? Race, clothing style, body language, etc. Then find the answers. By doing so, you’ll alleviate the fear response and you’ll come across less unknowns over time as you learn about them.
It’ll also help decrease biases and give you a more accurate perspective of the world. Being curious has helped me learn about different cultures, religions, worldviews, and lately, mental illness. It helps me connect with people I wouldn’t normally connect with. It’ll also do wonders for your social life and networking.
Your brain does A LOT of work behind the scenes that you might or might not know about. A “bad gut feeling” is the result of what your brain assumes a situation is. Your brain knows what a “dangerous” situation is. Say you are walking in a dark alley at night, your brain should send you a few red flags saying “This ain’t right”. Your brain gets these ideas from movies or news articles you read, and subconsciously processes whatever info your senses give it.