Are your ripe fruits of intuition rotting on the vine, going ignored? Or are you making full use of all those sweet signals? Intuition does not need be mysterious, its there for all who want it.
“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and forgotten the gift.” ~Albert Einstein ~
Powerful words from a scientist, and genius non the less. So how can we honor our gift? First, lets discuss what intuition is.
What is intuition?
What would your mental process look like without words? Without a language to channel your discursive mental meanderings? The concept of our thoughts as a stream of words is easily grasped. But consider your thoughts as pictures instead… It’s interesting to note, that Einstein, who is famous for thinking in pictures rather than words, places intuition on such a pedestal, as quoted above. There in lies a connection I believe. But pictures (visual/spatial) thinking is only one mode, aside from verbal (auditory/sequential), there is also somatic, kinesthetic and others.
Intuition is answers with out words (sometimes to questions we haven’t even asked yet)
There are of course many definitions from Descartes to Hume to Kant and many more but if were to harvest our own intuition we need to break it down and understand it simply. When you have an answer you can’t put into words, when you understand a concept but cant explain it (at least not verbally), or even when you feel (somatic awareness) somethings up but your not sure what yet, your intuition is plugging away.
If you have a square peg and have to choose between a round hole and a square one, you know where it goes. Even if you don’t know the word for ‘square’. Your visual spatial sense understands it. Its possible to know the answer with out knowing the words to defend that answer.
The exact definition of intuition will probably continue to be debated for a long time. The one we’re working with here lines up partially with tacit knowledge (though not completely). This is my preferred definition because, we can wrap our heads around it, break it down to fundamentals we can acquire, and it doesn’t involve any ‘woo woo’ factors.
Unblocking your intuition
- Be in your body. A common statement” from business leaders and others is “I just had a gut feeling”. Lets unpack that a little. Your gut is sometimes referred to as a second brain for its extensive nervous system components. It can even operate autonomously from your brain. So there are signals there. Butterflys in your stomach before public speaking ect.. If we are in a dynamic situation with many variables were trying to process we may feel something in our stomach or our hands get a little sweaty, we just got a clue what our next decision should be. Post mortem we can analyze and isolate what we are responding to, but if we are in our bodies, present, we can respond rapidly in the moment to our gut response.
- Toggle between contemplation and concentration. Some times our best approach is contemplative. Non-linear or lateral thinking, a visual/spatial approach where we are exploring the outside edges of the problem or project. Other times concentration is key, what we might think of as a brute force analytical approach. The intuitive mind sees analytical thought as a tool to pick up or put down as the need arise. Not every problem can be handled analytically. As Picasso said: “Computers are useless, they only give answers”. Sometimes the best course is to ask a better question. This is the result of a more intuitive contemplative approach.
- Pick patterns over pieces. This is really just an extension of the previous point, but represents an important avenue we want to burn into our process. Many definitions of intuition include pattern recognition. Constantly being aware of patterns even as we deal with a project piece by piece will allow us to take short cuts and sometimes even leaps of insight as we grasp a concept spatially and thereby enable our selves to skip certain mental steps. Here’s also a great example of where an analytical approach can serve your intuition well. Put in the brute force of analyzing as many different patterns that may apply to your field of study. For example in Daniel Kahnemans book “Thinking Fast and Slow” he mentions the pitfalls of intuitive rapid judgements ( to be sure, just because a person makes a decision rapidly doesn’t mean it’s intuitive, or even that they’ve trained their intuition effectively). He uses examples of reputable stock brokers who basically have less than a 50/50 win/loss ratio. But notice this quote of Josh Waitzkin of Search for Bobby Fischer fame “In my experience, really high level thinkers have integrated cognitive bias’ into there intuitive process”. A cognitive bias is essentially a pattern of rationality in judgement. We sound down these patterns through both previous study and deconstructing our own experiences. So don’t loose sight of the patterns as you examine the pieces.
- Embrace a positive attitude. Daniel Khaneman in the afore mentioned book also points out that positive mood, intuition, and creativity form a bottom up cluster. This makes sense from a neurobiological stand point as well. Dopamine in the brain is often related to positive moods and high engagement. Dopamine lowers the signal to noise ratio in our head’s there by increasing pattern recognition.
- Respect the unseen. You can’t see a black hole. It’s existence is basically intuited by it’s effects on everything around it. Miles Davis said “Don’t play what’s there, play whats not there”. As an artist, I tend to categorize this as negative space. This really falls under pattern recognition but it helps to look at it independently. The examples are endless of our getting caught up in what is there that we overlook what is not there. We can train our intuition to be sensitive to negative space and the space between the pieces of whichever mental puzzle we might be looking at. Research Chinese and Japanese Art for great examples of balancing positive and negative aspects in a painting. Another great thought experiment is to imagine removing material (much as a sculptor might) to find your painting.
The Beauty of Non-Linear Thinking
I’ve used this term of non-linear thinking a few times in this post, it really is a term that resonates with me personally. It’s important to understand just what we might mean in discussing linear and non-linear thinking. A line is the shortest route between two points. But consider, linear thinking is not necessarily the shortest distance between two ideas. Consider an analogy:
Imagine a bird flying above a mountain highway, perhaps it makes sense to follow the highways course, good visibility, road kill ect… But, assuming the same destination, if the road hits a series of switch backs, the bird can ignore the roads course and take a straight line. It’s not restricted by the road. The road is a linear, sequential process. Step by rolling step. But if we think like a bird we are not bound by that sequential process. With greater perspective and mobility we can take shortcuts that a linear, sequential course would not allow. When were driving we of course don’t have a choice, but our thinking process is not so limited.
The Dark Side of Intuition
Setting aside my intuition cheer leading for a minute, there are some blind spots we might consider.
Intuition, once burned in is not always a one size fits all. If we spent years burning in rugby habits, these won’t all transfer over to playing football. Our intuitive footwork will be real good to us on a football field. Our intuitive ball handling will probably get us in trouble, perhaps even worse than if we didn’t have any rugby experience to begin with.
Josh Waitzkin had an interesting comment when asked about his consulting of elite individuals. ‘Most of that last 1% is about unlearning.’ His clients, highly trained experts in their field, had honed their intuitions to incredible degrees to reach 99%. But that last 1% was about unlearning. Things they’ve cultivated and burned in that they can perform intuitively, were great for the first 99%. But their intuitions needed some adjustments for that last little step to be the best of the best.
Another example. Looking at a huge series of dominoes, you see at the end a glass of water perched to tip over. You intuitively know this with out having to analyze each domino one at a time right down the line. Quick look and your spatial reasoning will see the projected outcome. On the other hand if you do a brute force systematic analyzation of each domino and halfway down the line see it split… one chain reaction turns into two? Clearly our intuition would of misled us, or only been half right at best. In this case, our intuition is based on our visual spatial senses. If there are factors outside our visual spatial view, then our intuition can be compromised.
Invest In Your Intuition
It’s not uncommon (more so in yesteryear) for martial artists to be credited with some mystical ability because of their preternatural movement. But whats the truth of it?
Intuition is a bottom up process, that is to say habits that we have burned in so deeply through practice, come back up automatically. We can invest in our intuition, that is to say train it up. Obviously some personality types are more sensitive to intuition, as Carl Jung is famous for elucidating. But we all have it.
Again, leaning on Josh Waitzkins book “The Art of Learning” what looks like magic to us in an exceptional martial artist, is actually years of training. As an onlooker we my see a move that appears to be 3 or 4 components. An expert may see 20 or more. We may see a preternatural movement but not realize the martial artist has spent years breaking the move down into minuscule components and then putting it back together.
Physical analogies are great as they are so easy for us to visualize, but even the more esoteric aspects of intuition can be trained. Intuition is a skill, the deeper we train it, the more it will give back.
Embrace the Deep Now