We all have it, a feeling that comes upon us without knowing why, telling us something is not going to work out or is too good to miss. Sometimes it happens with people; we just know that the fit is there. Other times we just know that someone is going to spell trouble. It may happen with a business opportunity; no matter how shiny it looks we have a queasy feeling about things working out. Or there may be a decision we are called upon to make that involves an ethical choice and we can't take that final step because it feels wrong. But what causes this effect, and do we have to wait around for the feeling to come knocking?
For a long time, science ignored intuition. The imagination has long been blamed for psychological events that are not so easy to study because they occur sporadically. Now though, intuition has been tamed in the laboratory. It can be produced on demand and so is acceptable as a mind-body skill. It has even been shown to enhance decision-making. I discuss the research and ramifications in a section of my book.
In the laboratory the key is inducing a change in the body that is tied to emotion. This relies on subtle shifts in activation of the sympathetic nervous system. When we experience fear or anger from an obvious source, such as someone throwing a punch at us, the sympathetic nervous system roars into action. It is less obvious when the signs of threat are hidden. The skill then becomes being sensitive to subtle shifts in the body.
When the body is under emotional stress, we experience pupil dilation which lets in more light. This means the environment looks brighter. There is an increase in heart beat rate which we may feel as a drumming in the neck. Skin can become sweaty or clammy. A shot of adrenaline, along with glucose, makes us both shaky and energetic. We might also notice more rapid breathing.
The thing is, when we experience fear or anger from an obvious source, we expect the symptoms. When they come upon us from an unknown cause we try and push the change away, thinking it odd. If it does not add up with obvious external cues the rational mind wants to dismiss the change as silly; as some kind of mistake. And to make matters worse, the body changes can be subtle, all the more easily dismissed.
It is possible to train the mind to be more responsive though. Noticing shifts in ambience is a first step. This means becoming aware of how we feel in the moment and determining when that feeling changes. It involves questioning the reasons for the appearance of emotions that drives moods or state of mind, and taking special note when cause and effect are not obvious.
There appear to be two sources for intuition. The first is the collection of environmental cues that come together in the subconscious mind and eventually make their way into conscious awareness. We are all capable of this skill, since the subconscious takes in everything. It is the conscious mind that excludes most of the information, judging it irrelevant. But the extra information may tip the subconscious into recognising a pattern that is likely to end in disaster, and so pushes an emotional button that does not align with the obvious.
This kind of intuition grows with time. It is a form of pattern recognition that benefits from gaining knowledge and experience. A mechanic may listen to a car engine and know immediately where the problem can be found, even though he is not sure of the exact cause yet. A doctor may respond emotionally to the state of a patient before taking all the symptoms down because they recognise a syndrome subconsciously. For us, intuition can arrive as such hunches, or in dreams, or as a repeating thought that won't go away.
The second kind of intuition, while also coming in through the mind we are unaware of, sources information nonlocally. This is less well understood, since there is not yet any agreed upon mechanism, despite evidence for its existence and success.
Here too, we experience shifts in the body state that are accompanied by an emotional response. But there may not be any cues in the local environment that the subconscious can use to form a pattern for our subconscious mind. Instead the mind steps beyond the local to gather sensory cues from other places, stimuli from other times in the past or future, and even hidden secrets in other people's minds. There may be flashes of images, a moment when we seem to be somewhere else, noteworthy sensory cues that have no obvious source, all accompanied by a strong shift in ambience.
Once again though, the skill can be developed thorough a focus on awareness, as well as experimenting with the impressions we get to determine the signs that tell us when they are accurate and when they are wishful thinking. Misleading impressions are most notably attached to some strong desire we have for a particular outcome.
Whatever our attitude to intuition, it is a process of the mind that can help us, if we learn how best to use it.
Till next time – B.W. Cribb