How Intuition Works
In years past, just about any self-respecting scientist stayed well away from any sort of study of intuition because it was seen as some New Age-y pseudoscience. And for years, this neglect resulted in the perception that intuition is mystical, relied on by people who 1) make decisions using emotion instead of rational logic, and 2) seek the advice of mediums.
Years of cumulative research regarding intuition, however, paints a much more interesting picture. Gerard Hodgkinson, professor of Strategic Management and Behavioral Science at the University of Warwick, concludes that intuiting is a complex set of interrelated thinking and emotional, and biological (cellular) processes, in which there is no apparent interjection of deliberate, rational thought.
The view that intuition is an innate ability that all humans possess in one form or another suggests that it’s the most universal natural ability shared by all. The implication? The ability to intuit could be regarded as an inherited, unlearned gift.
The HeartMath Institute, which has conducted two decades of research on stress management and the heart’s intelligence, and others before them have shown that the heart’s sensory brain detects events before it registers in your conscious awareness.
In other words, the heart knows before the rational mind what is going to happen before it actually does. This pre-cognitive knowing is the center of your intuitive muscle, and it’s directly influenced by the emotional state of your heart.
Processing incoming data
Information comes at you all the time and at rapid rates. Consider the amount of information you take in when you’re sitting in a meeting with just one other person. You receive words and facts, observe body language and facial expressions, and absorb sensory input — including tone, emotional charge, and energetic broadcasts.
You process some of this information rationally and consciously — that is, you’re aware of it and pay attention to it. The rest just happens on autopilot: You’re not consciously aware of all the content in all these sensory inputs, but they are received and filed away nonetheless.
Two processors — think of them as computers — help you make sense of all this information: your conscious mind and your subconscious.
The conscious mind
The conscious mind’s specialty is perceiving, organizing, and delegating, so it likes to sort the information in a logical fashion. Different kinds of thinking take the information and apply it to the task at hand.
For example, you use analytical thinking to reduce information and see all the parts; critical thinking to play the devil’s advocate, check assumptions or assess risk; and big picture thinking (also called systems thinking) to see the interrelationships and interconnections.
The subconscious mind
The subconscious mind operates like a super processor. It takes in all the incoming information from the body, the environment, and your implicit memories, and works to uncover patterns and relate whole concepts to one another, looking for similarities, differences, and relationships among them. You’re only aware of a small fraction of this information.
Where you focus your attention affects what you become aware of and determines what gets processed at higher levels. In a noisy room filled with many conversations, for example, you have the ability to focus on a single conversation of interest and tune out others. Similarly, you can modulate pain from a stubbed toe or headache, desensitize yourself to sensations like tickling, and also self-direct your emotions.
The subconscious processor operates 24/7 (if your conscious mind is processing information 24/7, chances are you aren’t sleeping very well!). The subconscious is the supercomputer that, while you sleep, integrates the day’s experiences and processes data that saturates your decision-making environment.
Forming patterns from cues
Your intuitive process draws on your accumulated databank of solutions that worked in certain conditions. The process is fairly simply. When you handle the same issues over and over again, you begin to recognize patterns.
Over time, these recurring experiences become so familiar that you don’t need to reference procedures; eventually, they become so ingrained that you know the solution, without having to think about it. When new information comes in that doesn’t fit predictable patterns, you notice the new information and handle it differently, coming up with a different solution. When you need to make an intuitive decision, autopilot pulls from your inventory in milliseconds.
All goes well in a predictable environment. But what happens when you leave the safety of a familiar environment and enter a new one — you take a new job at a higher level or in a different sector, for example? You expand your database of cues, patterns, and solutions as you encounter different cues and underlying patterns, based on your new environment and set of circumstances.
Some people believe that intuition is only the result of accumulated experiences. This assertion suggests that you have to reach a particular age or stage in life before you can be intuitive. Clearly that isn’t the case. Some young people are very intuitive, and some older people aren’t.