• January 2015

The Science of Intuition

Albert Einstein was a strong believer in the power of intuition.

Consider this conversation he had with William Hermanns, author of Einstein and the Poet: In Search of the Cosmic Man.

Einstein: “Although intuition is what allows us to move forward — is the most important part of thinking — it alone is not enough. Knowledge also has its place, but intuition is the gatekeeper at the most critical juncture. Even though the workings of intuition remain mysterious, it is a reality.”

Hermanns: “Isn’t truth inherent in man? You once told me that progress is made only by intuition, and not by the accumulation of knowledge.”

Einstein: “It’s not as simple as that. Knowledge is necessary, too. An intuitive child couldn’t accomplish anything without some knowledge. There will come a point in everyone’s life, however, where only intuition can make the leap ahead, without ever knowing precisely how. One can never know why, but one must accept intuition as a fact.”

Do you agree?

For insights into the science of intuition, we consulted three studies.

Scroll down to learn more.

Radical Remission: Turning Around Cancer & Nurturing Health
by Kelly Turner, PhD

In the May 2014 issue of Psychology Today, Dr. Kelly Turner writes:

Almost every Radical Remission cancer survivor I’ve studied used their intuition to help make decisions related to their healing process. Research on intuition and following your gut instinct may explain why. Scientists have discovered that humans appear to have two very different “operating systems:”

  • System 1 is our quick, instinctual, and often subconscious way of operating — it is controlled by our right brain and by other parts of our brain that have been around since prehistoric times, known as the “limbic” and “reptilian” parts of our brain.
  • System 2 is our slower, more analytic, and conscious way of operating — it is controlled by our left brain and by newer parts of our brain that have only developed since prehistoric times (also known as the “neocortex”).

Researchers have found that intuition is part of System 1, which is why it comes on so rapidly and often does not make rational sense to us. In other words, intuitive decisions are not something that we have thought out carefully with reason, but rather choices that have arisen quickly out of instinct.

But why, exactly, should we trust our gut instinct? One reason would be because researchers have found that System 1 often knows the right answer long before System 2 does.

Turner’s conclusion: Our intuition often knows what’s best for us, even when our thinking minds do not understand yet what is going on.

Click here to read more.

Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to a More Meaningful Life
by CUNY philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci

In his primer on what intuition is and isn’t, Pigliucci says:

  • “One of the first things that modern research on intuition has clearly shown is that there is no such thing as an intuitive person tout court. Intuition is a domain-specific ability, so that people can be very intuitive about one thing (say, medical practice, or chess playing) and just as clueless as the average person about pretty much everything else. Moreover, intuitions get better with practice — especially with a lot of practice — because at bottom intuition is about the brain’s ability to pick up on certain recurring patterns; the more we are exposed to a particular domain of activity the more familiar we become with the relevant patterns (medical charts, positions of chess pieces), and the more and faster our brains generate heuristic solutions to the problem we happen to be facing within that domain.”
  • An “expert” is someone who performs at a very high level in a given field, be it medicine, law, science, chess, tennis, or soccer. As it turns out, people become experts (or simply, much much better) at what they do when they use their intuition and conscious thinking in particular ways.

Additionally, he explains, “Research on acquiring skills shows that, roughly speaking, and pretty much independently of whether we are talking about a physical activity or an intellectual one, people tend to go through three phases while they improve their performance.”

  • Phase 1. During the first phase, the beginner focuses his or her attention simply on understanding what it is that the task requires and on not making mistakes.
  • Phase 2. In the second phase, such conscious attention to the basics of the task is no longer needed, and the individual performs quasi-automatically and with reasonable proficiency. Then comes the difficult part. Most people get stuck in Phase 2. They can do decently whatever it is they set out to do, but stop short of the level of accomplishment that provides the self-gratification that makes one’s outlook significantly more positive or purchases the external validation that results in raises and promotions.
  • Phase 3. The third phase often remains elusive because while the initial improvement was aided by switching control from conscious thought to intuition — as the task became automatic and faster — further improvement requires mindful attention to the areas where mistakes are still being made and intense focus to correct them. Referred to as “deliberate practice,” this phase is quite distinct from mindless or playful practice.

Pigliucci’s conclusion: “Not only is there a difference between naive and expert knowledge, but there is more than one way to acquire expert knowledge, guided not just by the intrinsic properties of the system, but also by the particular kinds of interest that different individuals have in that system,” Pigliucci explains.

Click here to learn more.

Go With Your Gut — Intuition Is More Than Just a Hunch, according to Professor Gerard Hodgkinson, Leeds University Business School

In 2008, Science Daily reported: “Most of us experience ‘gut feelings’ we can’t explain, such as instantly loving — or hating — a new property when we’re house hunting or the snap judgments we make on meeting new people. Now researchers say these feelings — or intuitions — are real and we should take our hunches seriously.”

The study, led by Professor Gerard Hodgkinson of the Centre for Organisational Strategy, Learning and Change at Leeds University Business School, found that intuition is the result of the way our brains store, process, and retrieve information on a subconscious level, and so it is a real psychological phenomenon that needs further study to help us harness its potential. Click on the video above for more about the study.

“There are many recorded incidences where intuition prevented catastrophes, and cases of remarkable recoveries when doctors followed their gut feelings,” Hodgkinson explained. “Yet science has historically ridiculed the concept of intuition, putting it in the same box as parapsychology, phrenology, and other ‘pseudoscientific’ practices.”

Through analysis of a wide range of research papers examining the phenomenon, the researchers conclude that intuition is the brain drawing on past experiences and external cues to make a decision — but one that happens so fast the reaction is at a unconscious level. All we’re aware of is a general feeling that something is right or wrong.

Hodgkinson’s conclusion: “People usually experience true intuition when they are under severe time pressure or in a situation of information overload or acute danger, where conscious analysis of the situation may be difficult or impossible.”

Click here to read more.

And that’s not all!

If you are about to tie the knot, check out this study, which found that: Although newlyweds may not be completely aware of it, they may know whether their march down the aisle will result in wedded bliss or an unhappy marriage.

Stay tuned for more next month in our new column, Intuition Rules.