The neuroscience of intuition and why It’s Time to Hack yours...

The rapid flow of information in an increasingly uncertain world is driving more of us than ever to rely on intuition. But without training, our gut feelings may well be leading us astray

By Alexandra Jones

3 March 2021

n the video, the man stands at the end of a darkened corridor; his face has been blurred but his posture – shoulders stooped, head tilted in concern, hands clenched into anxious fists – betrays some uncertainty. He briefly speaks to a man standing just out of shot. Then, as if squaring himself to face a challenge, he turns to the camera and begins to walk.

We see that the corridor is strewn with items, creating a makeshift obstacle course. Haltingly, he shuffles past a bin, walks forward, then steps around a camera tripod. His steps quicken; left at a stack of printer paper, right at a plastic in-tray. The camera zooms in on his feet as he passes around the final obstacle, a plain white cardboard box. We cut away before we see the reactions of the people around him, but it seems reasonable to assume that they are amazed. The clip lasts 38 seconds – that is the length of time it has taken the man to navigate the obstacle course without a single collision.

He has done all of this with no help or guidance, despite being completely blind.

“It’s quite amazing,” says Joel Pearson, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of New South Wales in Australia. “It’s a phenomenon called ‘blindsight’.” People with blindsight often have functioning eyes, but damage to their brains’ visual cortex means that the raw data isn’t interpreted consciously in the brain, leaving them partially or completely blind. “So you get this situation where the information is going in, but the person can’t actually see.” And yet, doctors have found that given some encouragement, a person with blindsight, like the man in the video, may be able to navigate obstacles just as well as a seeing person. “Often they’re saying: ‘I have absolutely no idea how I'm doing this,’” says Pearson. “They’re using the information in a different way to how they might if they were seeing consciously. They’re making decisions based on feeling – the information is in their brain and they feel it there, then they act on it.” This, he argues, is how intuition works. “It’s the act of taking unconscious information and utilising it to make productive, useful decisions.”

Dissatisfied with the previous research on the subject, which for the most part had focused on self-reported assessments (for instance, chess players describing how they felt while making certain moves – whether they were moving strategically or intuitively), Pearson and his team designed an experiment which would prove that intuition exists and could be trained. The experiment used what Pearson calls “emotional inception”:“emotive images were flashed into the eyes of participants in a way that they weren’t consciously aware of; from neuroimaging we could see that the brain was registering the images, but the participants couldn’t consciously see them”. This was used to add unconscious emotional weighting to a decision-making task: in this case, participants were asked to judge the direction of travel, left or right, of a jumble of black dots on a screen. One direction was associated with the good images, the other with the bad images. Linking a direction with an emotive image meant that participants quickly began to make more accurate predictions, even when it was harder to spot which way the dots were moving. Their brains were logging the subliminal signals, using these to make better inferences and better decisions. For the first time in human history, a scientific experiment had captured intuition in action.

Image by Carl Abiador

It was groundbreaking because of the simple fact that intuition has long been a contentious subject in scientific circles. That wave of comfort when we meet a person who seems, for reasons we can’t define, completely trustworthy, or the shiver of doubt that causes us to divert from a route we walk every other day is, for many of us, an unassailable part of the human condition. But over the years scientists have come unstuck in their attempts to quantify and codify it, and argued over how “productive and useful” decisions made based on intuition actually are.

The problem is that gut feelings and intuition are often coloured by learned prejudices. In 2002, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics for his work on human decision-making. He defined two modes of thinking: System 1 is fast and intuitive; System 2 is slower and relies on reasoning. As he wrote in his wildly successful 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow: “System 1 has biases… it sometimes answers easier questions than the one it was asked, and it has little understanding of logic and statistics.” Our intuition takes in the available information and infers an outcome based on our past experience. Of course, depending on what those experiences are, the inference may well be wrong, leading us to make poor decisions which affect us and those around us negatively. This has meant that for years, System 2 thinking was prized by scientists, who argued that, presented with a tricky problem, we’re likely to make a more productive decision if we take time to understand the variables and weigh up the pros and cons.

As Pearson says, though, “we now live in a very uncertain world”. Even before Covid-19, rapid technological advancements meant that information moved at warp speeds and the variables affecting our decisions could be different from one day to the next. “And now with Covid, we have to make decisions with even less certainty about the contributing factors. As we found with our study, though, when people are forced to make decisions where the information they’re given is ambiguous, they tend to utilise intuition rather than rational thought.” This, he says, can be a double-edged sword. “There are times when we just shouldn’t use intuition,” he cautions. Our intuition can be knocked off course by a number of factors, but in a world with little certainty and too much ambiguous information, we’re likely to find ourselves relying on snap decisions more and more.

“This is why intuition training could prove particularly useful, particularly within the realm of business,” says Pearson. “Learning when to use it and when not to is just the first step.”

Image by National Cancer Institute

How to tune into your Intuition, according to Science

Check your mood Pearson purposefully doesn’t use intuition when he’s feeling highly emotional. Anger, anxiety and depression have all been shown to throw off our internal compass. “Emotional thinking isn’t the same as intuition,” argues Pearson. When our fight-or-flight response is triggered, the signals from our gut are unlikely to be offering a productive guide. “If you’re in the middle of a breakup, or you’ve been fired from your job,” continues Pearson, “or you’re just feeling very stressed or unhappy, your responses will be coloured by a powerful set of emotions which blind you to the more nuanced information you might have stored in your brain.” A study from 2017 conducted at the University of Basel, which looked at the intuitive decision-making abilities of 111 people, found that “anxious participants showed impaired intuitive performance compared to participants of the positive and neutral mood groups”.

Similarly, in a 2016 research paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, German scientists surveyed three major studies into the impact that depression can have on intuitive decision-making. As they pointed out: “Even though – normally – intuitions guide us through everyday life, there seem to be psychological states in which individuals are less intuitive and therefore less able to come to adaptive decisions without long reflections.” They argued that tapping into our brain’s unconscious information requires us to evaluate situations from a neutral standpoint. To do this, we first need to be feeling calm.

“To me, this is one of the most crucial things to understand about intuition,” says Pearson. “If you’re trying to make a big decision, take a moment to check your mood. Are you very tired? Very stressed? It’s probably not the time to rely on your gut. Intuition is only useful if you’re not already overloaded with other emotions.”

Tap into your heartbeat “There’s a thing called interoception; people who’re good at it tend to be able to sense when they’re having a gut feeling,” says Pearson. Interoception is one of the lesser-known senses; it refers to a heightened awareness of one’s internal state (basically it’s the sense that helps us to understand and feel what’s going on inside our bodies). And in fact, in recent years, psychologists have begun to argue that our interoceptive capabilities may well be the driver behind everything from thought, emotion and decision-making, to our sense of self.

While we’re tempted to see the brain as the organ of thought, in fact, the brain’s main job is to interpret signals from the body, then drive us to act on those (for instance, the brain takes a hunger signal from the stomach and drives us to seek out food). This means that every cognitive process, every thought, originates in the body and is a patchwork of sensory information (drawn from receptors in every organ), with memory applied. “People with good interoception can tap out their own heartbeats,” says Pearson. “Being in your body, having an intimate sense of the triggers and prompts as they’re coming, makes it more likely that you’ll feel it when your intuition is nudging you in a certain direction.” In fact, in a 2015 paper fromFrontiers in Psychology, a group of experts from institutions such as University of Toronto Mississauga and University of California San Francisco argued that developing interoception, “this meta-cognitive awareness... may lead to more accurate insights; recognition of how events, emotions, thoughts, and bodily sensations relate to each other”.

Image by Carl Abiador

Pearson argues that with daily practice, interoception is something we can all cultivate. In a 2019 paper on mindfulness and interoception, the psychologist Jonathan Gibson outlines two types of mindfulness practice which help increase interoceptive awareness: focused-attention mindfulness, where we spend around ten minutes with our awareness trained on one specific aspect of our body, like our breath, our heartbeat or the sensation of our limbs, and open monitoring, where we “non-judgmentally notice various sensations” as they pass through us. Building these basic practices into our days – perhaps as the first thing we do before we get out of bed, or the last thing we do before we go to sleep – have been shown to permanently increase our awareness of the signals from our body.

Pick your battles For our intuitive nudges to be useful, we need to have experience in the field. “Intuition doesn’t really work if you’re completely new to a situation or experience,” says Pearson. “Then it’s just better to rely on logic and slow thinking.” If, though, you’ve been running a business for a number of years and are struck with a complex problem around resourcing, intuition may well help guide you to a novel solution.

“It’s useful to imagine ourselves looking down on a situation as if from a balcony,” says Pearson. “Allowing our minds to visualise the situation, without necessarily reaching for an answer. Then it’s about engaging that interoceptive skill and being aware of the nudges you’re getting.” Perhaps something doesn’t feel quite right? Perhaps there’s an element that keeps pulling your attention? “The trick here is not to think too hard,” he continues. “If you can feel the information in your brain – there’s a high chance you’ll hit upon a decision. You have to just relax and allow yourself to act on it.”

Practice getting into a flow state The more we’re able to tap into our intuition and get positive feedback – basically following our instincts and things turning out well – the more our intuitive abilities will grow. “Intuition plays a bigger role in some professions,” says Pearson. “Professional sports players, for instance, make moves without consciously thinking about the outcome – they just feel it’s right to, say, move towards the ball at a certain time.” This, he argues, is partly down to the fact that sportspeople are more used to slipping into a flow state, which allows the body’s unconscious signals to guide our decision-making.

Pearson goes trail running every other day. “I like that challenge of having to flow through the rocks and trusting that I won’t fall or trip. I don't have time to think about foot placement or when to duck for a branch, I just allow my mind to guide me.” The more practiced we are at entering this flow state, where we allow our intuition to guide us and are rewarded with positive outcomes, the more our intuition will grow and help us make accurate decisions.

Lead image by: National Cancer Institute

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