This afternoon I went to a talk by classicist Peter Struck on "divination as a form of cognition." Much of it was the usual classicist's close reading of a few lines of a single text– in this case, Plato's Timaeus— but it echoed some more recent work on the physiology and neurology of "gut feelings" and instincts. I decided to look this up, and while looking for this book on neuroenterology (Michael Gershon's The Second Brain), I came across a related book on instinct and heuristics (Gert Gigerenzer's Gut Feelings). Easy mistake to make.
Both sound like interesting books, though, and one bit from a review of Gigerenzer's work caught my eye. It explains,
Intuition, it seems, is not some sort of mystical chemical reaction but a neurologically based behavior that evolved to ensure that we humans respond quickly when faced with a dilemma (e.g., fight or flight). Too much data, however, throws a monkey wrench into the process. The more variables we consider, the harder it is to make the "right" decision….
Our brains have evolved to take the quickest and most efficient route to a decision, based on experience and a set of innate and unconscious rules developed since birth to negotiate our physical and social environment. Start considering lots of other information and variables, and the brain slows down or falters. Simplicity, writes Gigerenzer, is an evolutionary adaptation to uncertainty: "A complex problem demands a complex solution, so we are told. In fact, in unpredictable environments, the opposite is true."
So maybe Bart Simpson was right, after all.