Intuition isn’t magic, it’s not the “force” of Star Wars, it’s comes from real data gathered by your brain when the other parts of your brain are busy living your life.
If someone were to ask you how you make a decision. You would probable answer that you make a decision by listing the pros and cons (mentally or on a sheet of paper) and whichever side of the list has the most compelling entries becomes the decision. That sounds good and, in fact, sometimes that’s exactly what you do. Most of the time, however, you make decisions so effortlessly that you don’t even realize that you do it. These are the intuitive or “gut” decisions that are based, not on a compared list of a half dozen points, but on a whole computer full of millions of points.
When making a decision of minor importance, I have always found it advantageous to consider all the pros and cons. In vital matter, however,. . . decisions should come from the unconscious,. . . – Sigmund Freud
What if I told you that you had access to a super computer with 5 separate input devices monitoring thousands of bits of information every minute? This computer is constantly comparing all of this input to patterns stored in its memory, evaluating and re-evaluating all the possible options and outcomes. Of course we’re talking about your brain. The constant stream of live input comes from your five senses; sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. While your front brain is busy driving the car and deciding on where to have lunch, your back brain is busy recording and processing everything in your surroundings.
You’re driving along, thinking about what you’d like to have for lunch and suddenly you get a funny feeling associated with the car in front of you, a “watch out”. While you were thinking about a Ruben sandwich, your brain was noticing that the car in front of you crossed the yellow line twice, the car’s speed is erratic, and the driver’s head is bobbing. Now that you’ve been warned you consciously notice this and phone 911. That is intuition at work.
How did we develop this reliance on decisions from barely perceived sensory information? Evolutionary biology can offer some interesting clues. I once asked a neurobiologist why the sense of smell is the only one of the five senses with a direct connection to the brain. The answer was in the form of a “what if”. What if you were a Neanderthal living in a cave and something was sneaking up on you in the middle of the night with intentions of having you for its dinner. You’re asleep, so sight, touch and taste are on temporary hold. Hearing could help but you would have to assume that creatures that sneak up in the night have gotten good at being silent. What’s left would be smell, and, in fact, most things that would like to have you for dinner smell bad. It’s entirely possible that the nasty smell would have aroused the Neanderthal in time for him to make his escape and keep the species alive.
My children and I used to go on regular camping/backpacking trips sometimes as far as 20 miles from any civilization. Once in the middle of the night there was a commotion outside the tent. I was pulling on my shoes to go out and see what it was, when my daughter Kim stopped me. She said; “Don’t go out there” and after asking her why, she said; “smell it” and there was, in fact, the aroma of rotting meat in the air. I stayed in the tent, the commotion stopped, and in the morning we went out to survey the campsite. There were huge bear footprints all over the campsite. From then on, it became known as “Kim’s Rule”.
When you’re in a new doctor’s office, your front brain is trying to make a decision about proceeding with surgery and mentally checking off the Doctor’s credentials and attributes. At the same time, your back brain is in hyperdrive, recording and processing sights, sounds, movements in the office, personal interactions, smells, colors, subtle eye movements, and words being said by intonation, innuendo, and body language.
The back brain (intuition) can’t announce its findings like the neon sign in the pizza shop; It only has three messages;
1. Run. – (Major adrenalin rush, the bear is right around the corner.)
2. Everything fits and we’re still interested. (Warm and Fuzzy feeling)
3. Something is not right here. (I’m going to warn you by making you uncomfortable and give you a “queasy” feeling in your stomach.)
Learn to listen to these signals and they could save you a lot of pain and suffering or maybe even your life.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Blink” makes the case that a decision (intuition) can come at us so fast, that we tend to doubt it’s validity. He uses the term “thin slices” for the amount of time required to make a decision and the “thin slices” may be only a few seconds.
When you’re driving home and you’re struck with the thought that this might be your big chance to win the lottery, that’s not intuition. There’s no information processing. That decision takes place in a part of the brain sensitive to “urges” like sex, love and lotteries and those urges are moderated by chemicals.
The good news, intuition about human-human interactions is built in (if we just listen). Ever since we were infants, we learned that correctly interpreting our parent’s moods and emotions would result in love and attention. Throughout our lives we constantly refine and use these intuitions although we sometimes call it “body language”.
Going back to evolutionary biology, a caveman out on a hunting expedition who encounters another hunter would have only a second or two (thin slice) to assess the other hunter for hostility. An incorrect intuition would have removed him from the gene pool.