Mar 10 2011
What is intuition? I won’t resort to a dictionary definition of the word – that’s not what I am interested in. I want to know what it really is – what is the operational definition?
a. The act or faculty of knowing or sensing without the use of rational processes; immediate cognition. See Synonyms at reason.
b. Knowledge gained by the use of this faculty; a perceptive insight.
2. A sense of something not evident or deducible; an impression.
You see – this definition is vague and nonsensical. There is a big difference between “knowing” and “sensing”. Perhaps “believing or believing that you know something” would be better. The second definition is better because it does not imply knowledge.
Intuition is defined by what we experience – coming to a belief or guess or hunch, without being aware of the specific cognitive processes that got us there. But the definition does not involve any conclusions about the nature of the process itself. This leaves the definition wide open to interpretation.
As a neuroscientist I know that there are available neurological explanations for intuition. We are only aware of a small portion of our brain’s information processing. Much of that processing is subconscious – but the results of that processing are sometimes presented to the conscious part of the brain. We may experience this as an answer leaping to our conscious minds, seemingly out of nowhere. When the information is mundane, like where you placed that latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer while you are on your way to the bathroom, we take such experiences for granted. Sometimes we may consciously try to remember where we placed it – retrace our steps. But at other times the answer pops into our heads while we are thinking about something else.
This happens on a daily basis. What was the name of that actor in that movie? Then, five minutes later, while the conversation has moved on to something else and you are actively engaged in thinking about another topic, the name “Colin Firth” pops into your head and you blurt it out. What was happening in your brain during those five minutes? The massively parallel processing of your brain was still searching for matches, subconsciously, and when the face and the name finally crossed neurons, the match was sent to “the global workspace” – that part of the brain that is your stream of conscious awareness.
To me – that it intuition. It is information processing (mostly pattern recognition) in the subconscious parts of your brain that then gets presented to your conscious self. This can even involve complex problem solving. I have experienced this as well – that “eureka” moment when an answer or perhaps just an idea comes into your mind, seemingly fully formed. The eyes go wide, and you are almost giddy with the nugget you have just been given.
Intuition might also refer to another neurological process – not subconscious information crunching, but emotions. We evolved to make snap judgments and to have immediate gut reactions to people and situations. Here the processing is very much subconscious, but in deeper and more primitive parts of the brain. Emotions evolved to do some of our thinking for us- – to make cold and calculating Darwinian decisions about survival and reproduction. When we find ourselves attracted to mate we are generally not aware of all the biological cues to which our monkey-brains are responding. We are responding to cues that convey health, breeding, and resources. We are not thinking, “this person will maximize my reproductive success,” but our primitive brains are.
So intuition is also a feeling that we get. This type of intuition is closer to instinct – evolved automatic responses. We then rationalize these feeling to minimize cognitive dissonance and make the thinking parts of our brains feel better.
In my opinion – sub-conscious processing and evolved instinct is sufficient to explain everything we experience as intuition. I do not intend to denigrate intuition – it is highly valuable. However, we should not surrender to our intuition – assume that it has some magical property or relationship to the truth. It should be treated as a valuable hypothesis, or as useful biological information. Perhaps you have a bad vibe about that person because you are picking up on subtle social cues that indicate he may be a psychopath. But it should not be viewed as a source of unimpeachable information or ultimate conclusions. You still need to engage your rational brain to check out and verify the information intuition is handing you.
The experience of intuition, however, leads some to believe that we have access to magical sources of information. It may be tempting to think that intuitive information comes from a deity, or the universe, or our psychic sense. It is also tempting to just listen to our intuition, whatever you think the source, and trust it as an excuse to avoid the hard work of rational thought. Doesn’t every Hollywood movie teach us this – don’t think, feel. Just go with your gut.
Intuition has it’s place. But it is not magic, nor should it replace rational thought.
At least that’s what I feel.
49 Responses to “A Word on Intuition”
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.