What Is This Thing Called Intuition?
ONE evening in 1893, a clerk for a coal company in Detroit, Michigan, U.S.A., saw a weird contraption made of spare parts and bicycle wheels clattering noisily down the street. Suddenly, he had a hunch—a flash of intuition. He somehow just knew that here was an invention with a future. Promptly he withdrew his life’s savings of a thousand dollars and bought into the inventor’s company, ignoring the sneers of experts who insisted that this odd device would never be very popular. About 30 years later, he sold his shares in Henry Ford’s automobile company for $35 million. To say the least, his intuition paid off!
The renowned scientist Albert Einstein is another who acted upon a flash of intuition. He had a notion—one he later called the happiest thought of his life—which led to the birth of the famous theory of general relativity. Einstein concluded that intuition was crucial to the discovery of natural laws. Not all of Einstein’s hunches paid off so handsomely, though. He confessed that he once lost two years’ worth of hard work by pursuing a beguiling intuition that never panned out.
Of course, intuition does not always lead to fame and fortune, nor is it strictly the province of geniuses and multimillionaires. For most of us, intuition is an ordinary part of everyday life. It may play some part in many of the decisions we make: the decision to distrust a stranger, the resolve to enter a business deal, the surmise that something is wrong with a friend whose voice didn’t sound quite right over the telephone.
Many, though, rely on intuition to make much more important decisions: what career to pursue, where to live, whom to marry, even what religion to live by. When intuition in these areas doesn’t pan out, the cost may be much higher than losing two years of work, as did Einstein. What, then, is “intuition”? How does it work? How reliable is it?
One teenage girl, quoted in The Intuitive Edge, by Philip Goldberg, answered that question by saying: “Intuition is when you know something, but, like, where did it come from?” Intuition has been more formally defined as “knowledge that comes to a person without any conscious remembering or reasoning.” Intuition, it seems, involves a kind of leap—straight from seeing a problem to knowing its solution. Suddenly, we just know an answer or comprehend a situation. That does not mean, though, that intuition is the same thing as an impulse or a desire.
“When I saw it, I just knew I had to have it,” for instance, does not express intuition so much as desire. Intuition may seem similar to desire in that it appears to come upon us without methodical, step-by-step reasoning. But its roots are really far less emotional and mysterious than the desires that well up from our often “treacherous” hearts.—Jeremiah 17:9.
Apparently intuition is not some mysterious sixth sense either. As The World Book Encyclopedia says: “Some people incorrectly call intuition ‘the sixth sense.’ But investigation usually shows that intuitions are based on experience, particularly the experience of individuals with great sensitivity.” The individual builds up “a storehouse of memories and impressions,” the Encyclopedia argues, from which the mind may draw a “sudden impression [called] an intuition, or ‘hunch.’”
So rather than being some mysterious or magical trait, intuition appears to result naturally when a person acquires expertise. As the magazine Psychology Today noted recently: “Researchers have found that intuitive people share one essential trait: They are experts in particular . . . fields of knowledge. And they easily tap their erudition to solve problems in their special domains. In fact, people appear to be intuitive precisely because—and to the extent that—they possess expertise.” But why would expertise give birth to intuition?
Michael Prietula, an assistant professor of industrial administration, theorizes that as they gain more knowledge of a subject, “there is a gradual change in how people think and reason.” The mind organizes the information into blocks, or chunks. These broad patterns of information sometimes enable the mind to bypass the slower, plodding, analytical steps and leap directly to intuitive conclusions, or hunches. According to Prietula, the hunches improve as the brain links more of these broad patterns.
Consider an everyday example from the book Brain Function: “Watch a locksmith at work as he feels his way with a simple bent wire in a complicated lock and snaps it open, as if guided by some mysterious intuition.” The locksmith’s intuition may well seem mysterious to an observer; in reality, it springs from years of experience. All of us use this kind of intuition. When you ride a bicycle, for example, you don’t consciously say to yourself things like, ‘I think I had better turn the front wheel a fraction to the right, or else I might lose my balance.’ No, the brain makes such decisions intuitively, based on knowledge you gained from experience.
Similarly, Einstein’s intuition in physics did not spring from thin air. He had a vast reservoir of expertise to draw from. However, expertise in one field may not lead to intuition in another. Einstein’s intuition would not help him fix a plumbing problem.
In the minds of many, the words “women” and “intuition” go together. Are women really more intuitive than men? And if so, how could the acquiring of expertise explain this phenomenon?
Consider a common example. A baby cries. The experienced mother, busy in another room, reaches for the diapers instead of preparing to feed the child. Why? She has developed an intuitive sense about her child’s cries. She knows which cries express which needs and which are more likely to come at certain times. In a split second, and without any conscious reasoning, she is able to assess the child’s need and react accordingly. Is some mysterious sixth sense at work? No, her intuition is based on her expertise as a mother, a hard-won benefit of experience. A new mother or a baby-sitter may at first be at a loss in the same situation.
The notion of women’s intuition is not limited to motherhood, though. Many have observed that women often seem able to size up the subtleties of situations involving people and personalities more quickly and intuitively than men. Scientists are not sure why the sexes seem to differ in this respect.
Based on his studies of the subject, psychologist Weston Agor of the University of Texas, El Paso, concluded that while women are, on the average, more intuitive than men, this difference is based more on culture than on physiology. Other experts have also concluded that the traditional roles of women train them to be good judges of character. As anthropologist Margaret Mead put it: “Because of their age-long training in human relations—for that is what feminine intuition really is—women have a special contribution to make to any group enterprise.”
While women’s intuition is an admittedly speculative subject, there is a growing consensus among experts that intuition is an extremely useful tool for both male and female. In his book The Process of Education, psychologist Jerome Bruner says: “The warm praise that scientists lavish on those of their colleagues who earn the label ‘intuitive’ is major evidence that intuition is a valuable commodity in science and one we should endeavor to foster in our students.”
It is not just science students, though, who value the faculty of intuition and wish to cultivate it. The question is, Can it be done? Granted, some people are simply more gifted with intuition than others. But since intuition does seem to be so closely tied to the gaining of expertise, some experts feel that we can enhance innate intuitive ability by paying more attention to the way we learn.
For example, when reading, do not simply try to absorb a lot of facts. Raise questions. Clarify anything you do not understand. Try to summarize the main points and anticipate conclusions. Instead of trying to grasp a myriad of details, look for the broad categories and pattern, the underlying principles. As psychology professor Robert Glaser sees it, “the ability to perceive large meaningful patterns” is at the very root of intuition.
Of course, not every intuition is valid. What, for instance, if the knowledge upon which the intuition is based was faulty to begin with? That sobering thought may inspire us to test carefully the accuracy of what we learn. Nearly 2,000 years ago, the Bible wisely said just that. Philippians 1:10 puts it this way: “Make sure of the more important things.”—See also Acts 17:11.
Another drawback of intuition is that it can be colored by our emotions. That is why leaning solely on intuition when making major decisions or when evaluating people can be dangerous. “When you have an emotional investment in something, your intuition may be less reliable unless you can put your feelings in perspective,” warns psychologist Evelyn Vaughan. Anger, fear, envy, and hate—these strong feelings, while they are not intuitions themselves, can influence and even contaminate our intuitions. Take, for instance, two people who have long had a strong dislike for each other. When a new misunderstanding arises, each of them intuitively just knows that the other has bad motives. Wisely, though, the Bible cautions us against this kind of judging ‘according to face value.’—2 Corinthians 10:7.
Another emotion, pride, might lead us to attach too much weight to our intuitions, as if they had some special value compared to the judgment and opinions of others. We might make snap decisions without consulting those affected. Or pride might lead us to cling stubbornly to an intuitive decision in the face of the hurt feelings or the well-considered counsel of others. Again, the Bible has some wise advice: “If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he is deceiving his own mind.”—Galatians 6:3.
Finally, relying too heavily on intuition may breed mental laziness. There is no shortcut to the acquiring of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom; organized study is the only way. So instead of seizing upon the first intuitive notion that comes along, a wise person builds up a reservoir of knowledge, which then becomes a source of understanding, insight—and often of intuition as well.
Intuition, after all, is of real value only when it is in harmony with the greatest mind in the universe—the mind of the Creator. He is the source of accurate knowledge and true wisdom, and he wants us to take in this vital knowledge. Through the Bible, he kindly allows us access to his thoughts, feelings, and actions. As we put such knowledge to use in our lives, our “perceptive powers,” including intuition, become “trained.”—Hebrews 5:14.
So acquire expertise in this field of knowledge about the Creator and his Son. (John 17:3) You will never find anything more worthy of your endeavor. There is no better source from which to draw intuition.
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Einstein attached much importance to intuition
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Intuition is not some mysterious sixth sense
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Are women really more intuitive than men?
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Intuitions are not reliable when they are based on faulty knowledge
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By intuition a mother recognizes her baby’s needs when it cries