L’atmosphere Camille Flammarion
intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful
servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has
forgotten the gift.” Albert Einstein
Most people have experienced the often
vague feeling of knowing something without having any memory of its
source. This phenomenon is known as a “gut feeling,” a “hunch” or
According to the Oxford English
Dictionary, intuition is the ability to understand or know something –
immediately – without conscious reasoning. Although this knowledge
can come in any form (thoughts, images) its primary channel is feeling.
The word “intuition” comes from the Latin word “intueri” which roughly
translated means to “look inside” or to “contemplate.” Although there is
general (though often tepid) acceptance that intuition exists, there is
still no scientific agreement on what it is.
Gavin de Becker, author of The Gift of Fear (not my favorite title) refers to these sign as “Messengers of Intuition:”
- Hairs raising on the back of your neck
- Chills down your spine
- Spiders of anxiety crawling across your skin
- Concern, wonder or doubt in the back of your min
- Lack of comfort and ease around a certain person (and I would add place or thing)
Many people experience intuition in their gut, as in:
- “I felt in my gut that I should not get on the plane.”
- “My gut instinct tells me to avoid this business deal.”
- “My gut reaction is not to go out with this guy, but he seems so nice.”
Learning to discern differences
between genuine intuitive impulses and conditioned, negative voices and
feelings requires practice. For example, I’m fully aware that as an
often anxious flier I’ve heard the voices of worry and felt the physical
sensations of fear when I’ve boarded a plane. This makes it challenging
to know what’s intuitive and what’s habituated. Only by developing
greater self-awareness and internal listening, over time, can we begin
to make those fine distinctions.
Where Does Intuition Come From?
Il Sogno Michelangelo Buonarroti
Researchers studying the processes of
intuitive experience have so far concluded that the human brain has dual
systems for receiving and analyzing sensory impressions, one conscious
and one unconscious. In the unconscious, our sensory impressions are
compared with previously stored images.
We all have an inner picture book of
stored experiences based on what has happened to us in earlier life. The
greater the experiences, the bigger the reservoir of sensory
impressions. According to researcher Lars-Erik Bjorklund, “It
can be a matter of smells, gestures, an ineffable combination of
impressions that makes what we call intuition tell us something.”
It’s important to note that these memories are only stored in our brain if they effect us.
In other words, impressions form memories, if they are emotionally
resonant. The hippocampus (where memory is stored) though independent,
interacts with the amygdala (emotional center) in concert to
determine what will be encoded and stored. How and why the hippocampus decides to select a memory is still not understood.
But is intuition more than just a hunch that is the outcome of stored memory and sensory impressions?
If researchers are correct and
intuitive glimpses are the result of unconscious stored impressions,
what accounts for so many insights where there is no past experience?
There are legions of stories about how people’s lives were saved, accidents averted and successes achieved where no prior (at least conscious) information was known.
Gothic Night Works Tate Gallery
Once upon a time, people, especially
women, were burned at the stake for even admitting they heard “voices”
or experienced feelings and sensations that were not sanctioned by group
norms. It’s estimated that about nine million women were burned for
witchcraft throughout history. Perhaps the notion of “women’s
intuition” is the legacy of that frightful practice.
Fortunately, the specter of execution
no longer hangs over us but for most of us, conformity to group
agreements still influences what we think – and what we feel. We’re
subjects of the conditioning of the social groups that shaped our
childhood and those that continue to exert pressure for acceptance.
Although Western cultures, in general, have become more tolerant of the
concept of intuition, it’s still suspect relative to the near reverence
we have for data and logic.
This thinking is pervasive in business
settings. Most people still believe that their decisions are
driven primarily by rational reasoning. Science would say the answer is a
combination of both, but the jury is still out, as the saying goes.
Part of the problem is that we apply a
higher standard to the predictive outcome of intuition as opposed to
logic. If we measured the accuracy of our intuitive based
decision-making to that of our logical reasoning, we might be surprised
to find that our over-reliance on logic isn’t as accurate as we believe.
Another mental tendency that confounds
our ability to listen to our intuitive senses is black or white,
either-or thinking. Organizational consultant and systems thinker Peter
Senge explains, “People with
higher levels of personal mastery can’t afford to choose between reason
and intuition, or head or heart, any more than they would choose to walk
on one leg or see with one eye.”
The methodologies of most Western
education and business systems are based on left brain development. We
don’t have the skills or support in our culture to cultivate our
intuitive sensing. Often this is a matter of belief and trust. Although mistrust in the unknown
is common (one of the factors that keep us averse to change in general)
there are literally hundreds of things we believe in and act on without
Harvard Business Review author Modesto Maidique writes, “Ask
an experienced CEO how he/she made a major decision and their typical
response is “intuition” or “gut feel.” Yes, analysis plays a role, but
intuition was found to be a major or determining factor in 85% of
thirty-six major CEO decisions that we studied. Some were good
decisions, some were not, but regardless intuition seemed to rule the
Since his recent death, the life,
times and beliefs of Apple founder Steve Jobs has received widespread
attention. Job’s experience with intuition is worth noting, given his
acclaimed ability to presage a new age of communication with the vision
of his products. According to Jobs, “I
began to realize that an intuitive understanding and consciousness was
more significant than abstract thinking and intellectual logical
analysis. Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than
intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work.”
These surprising statistics and
testimony from Steve Jobs and other CEOs belies the apparent bias we
meet when valuing our own intuition or that of others. Regardless of
corroboration from business leaders on the value of listening to our
unlimited intuitive knowledge, many people still discount their
intuitive voices or sensing.
Even when the information (messages)
we receive from our purest intuitive response feels right, (sometimes
exciting, sometimes uncomfortable) it still can feel at odds with the
“evidence” of logical reasoning. Often it isn’t even the result of our
own experience, but that of others that influences us to ignore our
We dismiss first impressions and
confuse nagging doubts and troubling thoughts with negative thinking and
conditioned reactivity. Maybe we’re not skilled enough in emotional literacy to
distinguish between the information that different feelings provide. Or
are we too reliant on the opinions and approval of others?
While these factors may be true, I
believe the primary obstacle to deepening our relationship with our
intuitive self is that we are simply out of practice. That little child
within us, filled with wonder, openness and absent the restrictions
imposed by later socialization, understood this better than the adult
who struggles to maintain a certainty and control that doesn’t exist.
In Part 2 we’ll
explore the obstacles we face when trying to reconnect with our
intuitive wisdom. We’ll also look at ways we can strengthen our ability
to listen more deeply and derive greater benefit from our intuitive
As always, I appreciate your comments, questions, readership, subscriptions, shares and tweets.
Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Partners