intuition, it's not what you think...

Intuition in popular culture is represented as a kind of supernatural knowledge that saves us from impending doom, or as the whispering of angels on our shoulders. It is vague, tends to have negative scientific connotations and has a whiff of magic about it. So does that mean it is not real? Most definitely not! Everyone always already and constantly has access to it. We simply have a poor understanding of the intuitive process and how to regulate it.

Neurocognitively speaking intuition is how an array of physiological responses to the environment are processed by the preconscious mind. The preconscious mind sends this information to the conscious mind where it is given meaning and with this meaning a whole series choices and behaviours ensue. Looking at intuition like this I understand it as an authentic and holistic preconscious knowing borne out of my concrete physiological responses filtered through my personal, historical and situational knowledge. These physiological responses lead to a calculation and generate a choice for the best way for me to handle a situation - the intuitive response. The best way to access the intuitive response is to be calm, relaxed and grounded in my body and in my awareness. However from our everyday perspectives intuition seems to appear out of nowhere as we typically do not have awareness around our preconscious mind nor connect subtle physiological responses to full-formed intellectual constructs or complex behavioural choices. And this is why we think of intuition as supernatural rather than as a manifestation of the interactions between our environment, our body and our preconscious mind. 

The meanings we attribute to intuition come from either the dark side or the light side of our meaning making styles. So let's hit pause and scrutinise what distinguishes the light from the dark side of meaning making styles. Let's talk about fear: sometimes our intuition tells us we need to feel fear because we are in literal danger - this comes from the light side, it is a healthy response to want to protect ourselves from harm. However sometimes we apply a distortion to our intuition when it passes from the preconscious to the conscious parts of our mind. We make a fear based decision when in reality there is no literal danger present - this comes from the dark side and it is a limitation to shield yourself from experience when there is no danger. One response is based on reality. The other is based on internal distortions we perceive as reality e.g. the world is a bad place, people are always out to get me, no one loves me, I am unworthy, my desires are shameful, the future is bad, I am better than everybody else...etc. Alternately we also evade our intuition and make decisions where we have ignored the evidence because we are attached to our distortions and work very hard to maintain them, even though the evidence says otherwise e.g. this person is The One, she will change eventually, one more won't hurt me, it was an accident he didn't mean to hit me, I don't need to deal with this right now, I have no options, the rules don't apply to me... etc.

Ok unpause and let's direct our attention back to intuition and to what is most significant in understanding it: intuition is neutral and requires no effort. Intuition is the confluence where physiological awareness and preconscious knowing meet to generate information - you, the thinking self aware you, have no agency in that process. Where you come in is where you decide what to do with the information when it arrives into the meaning making parts of your conscious mind. Choice is the crucible of intuition. 

In an experiment conducted in 1997 called the Iowa Gambling Task, researchers measured participants physiological responses to a gambit. The gambit consisted of 4 decks of cards. Each deck had a different chance of winning and losing, and within each deck there was a variability as to how often there would be a high win or a high loss. Participants were given money and told to win as much as they could. This is what happened: at about 40 cards participants began to realise that the decks were not equally stacked and they knew which decks were better but could not explain why. By 80 cards participants not only understood the decks were not equally stacked, the fully understood how the decks were stacked and which were the winners and the losers. However, on average at 10 cards the participant's measured physiological responses indicated exactly which decks were stacked as the losers and the winners. When their hand reached for a loser deck the response would show increased sweat and tension, indicative of the flight response or for a winner deck the response would show relaxation indicating it was the winning choice. That is, what took participants 80 cards to consciously figure out took only 10 cards for intuition to identify. Think about that. 

What intuition serendipitously offers us is an egress from the endless stream of distortions and deceptions we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it. It may not have evolved to play this role for us, but in these modern lives intuition is an extraordinary opportunity to get back to yourself. What intuition persistently offers is the gift of being present. But this key aspect of intuition is often lost in the noise of looking at the end results of processing intuition rather than at the crossroads of intuitive insight - the crucible I was speaking of.

How then do we debride fear from intuition in order to make a healthy choice? Well, it's complicated because our early experiences shape our world view and hardwire us to respond in certain ways long after the conditions and experiences in which those responses were formed have passed. Some of these early experiences are healthy and create positive feedback loops and others are traumatic and create negative feedback loops. We subsequently struggle substantially in our adult lives with self perpetuating negative feedback loops reinforcing our fear based belief systems - and we conflate this with intuition. Rather than making genuine intuitive choices, we make choices based on fear. Worse we take perfectly neutral insights of a situation and turn them into a big tangled mess of drama and this drama becomes a story and this story becomes a narrative and this narrative dictates your life and you become lost in the plot of it. 

Going back to Iowa Gambling task ask yourself what happens between 10 and 80 cards? This is an exciting question for which there is no clear answer. Does the preconscious mind direct the conscious mind? Do they function independently, concurrently, quantumly? Crucially how do we tap into the information of preconscious knowing so we bypass fear and stay tuned into our reality? How do we get our lives to be like knowing at 10 cards which situation or relationship is good for us, and which is not rather than at 80 cards? In other words how do we stack the deck in our favour? Inducing a relaxation response rather than a fight/freeze/flight response is the answer. How do you do this? Begin by looking at the list below as it offers a clear way to distinguish the quality of feelings based on fear from feelings based on intuition. 



• Highly emotional, anxious, heavy

• Reactive, cruel or demeaning to self or others

• Focuses on future or past

• Reacting to triggers & projecting

• Feels restrictive & oppressive: shutdown



• Neutral & unemotional

• Feel present & aware in the body

• Only about the present

• Responding to reality, not projecting

• Feels expansive & freeing: opening up


In this sense what's exciting to me is that accessing intuition is not about teaching myself how to have intuition, it’s about learning to utilise my already existing intuitive processes and in doing so, bypass historical fear based feedback loops. My problem is not that I have to learn intuition, my problem is I have to teach myself not to create and/or respond to fear based distortions. My solution is that I need to calm down and trust the process. My solution is to generate calm whereby I can make the best choice possible.

Remember without fear, we'd have all been eaten by cave bears a long time ago, so fear deserves respect. To repeat, fear is not wrong but it must be situationally assessed if it is an appropriate response or a distortion - the only way to do this is to be present and relaxed.  Equally without calm awareness we never would have left the cave and would still be eking out an existence consuming a paleo diet and living our short brutal lives.

Go out experiment with your new found understanding of intuition. Go explore and examine your own relationships and how you engage your intuition in them. When you meet someone new make note what sensations occur in your body and your mind. What happens when you meet a longtime friend? What thoughts arise? Are you physically tense or relaxed? Do you think this person is a cave bear or a member of your tribe?

The ability to be happy and fulfilled in your life always returns to being present, being here, being now - the ability to harness intuition is rooted in being present. By practicing keeping your body relaxed and your mind relaxed the less fear based responses you have, the more intuitive you become - the closer you draw knowing at 10 cards rather than at 80 cards what the best choices are for you. 



Visceral Influences on Brain and Behaviour by Critchley, Hugo D; Harrison, Neil A

Neuron, 02/2013, Volume 77, Issue 4

Deciding Advantageously Before Knowing the Advantageous Strategy by Antoine Bechara; Hanna Damasio; Daniel Tranel; Antonio R. Damasio 

Science, 02/1997, Volume 275, Issue 5304