By learning how to better listen to our inner voice and to be aware of the present moment with tuned down filters and with no judgment, we will also more easily access our intuition. You have probably been in a situation where you intuitively knew how to act without really knowing why. You have simply listened to your “gut feeling” and strikingly often it has turned out you were right.
The late professor at the University of California, Berkely, George L Turin, has attempted to characterize the intuitive ability of problem solving as:
- To know how to approach the problem without quite being sure how you know.
- To recognize what is peripheral and what is central, without having fully understood the problem.
- To perceive in advance the general nature of the solution.
- To instantly connect a problem in one field to analogous problems in other fields and import the analogous knowledge into the problem at hand.
- To sense when a solution mustbe right, just because “it feels right,” and to suspect a solution that feels wrong and continue to gnaw at it.
Albert Einstein has described this intuitive feeling like this: “The intellect has little to do on the road to discovery. There comes a leap in consciousness, call it Intuition or what you will, the solution comes to you and you don’t know how or why. ”
Intuition is founded on a solid knowledge base, but sometimes this is not enough. Just as the artist can create intuitively without knowing in advance what the end-result will be, the scientist can develop an “intuitive knowledge” that guides her without knowing how or why, based on her imagination and association skills.
Einstein received his intuitive revelations like mental pictures or music. He first worked intuitively, and then expressed himself in logical terms only in a second step, as he translated his images and his music into mathematical terms. Intuition can also appear in other forms, not rarely as an indescribable feeling that does not come from the head – hence the term “gut feelings “.
The intuition as described above, is closely related to the insight or “aha experience”, since the solution to a problem may seem to arise from nowhere. It is also related to the ability our brain has to create patterns, fill out voids and create complete pictures based on only partial information.
Knowledge, logic and mathematics are easy to define and are taught at school. It is based on our slow, conscious thinking and underlies rational and well-considered decisions. It is harder to explain the intuition. It is linked to our rapid associative thinking and is thus more evasive. We know it “feels” right (or wrong), but we cannot really explain why. This intuitive feeling can therefore be perceived as coming from within as a divine or mystical inspiration or understanding. In our rational and technologically dominated society, the intuition is sometimes seen as superstition.
Neuro researcher Richard Restak highlights this in his book The naked brain: How the emerging neurosociety is changing how we live, work, and love. When people are forced to make decisions, they tend to think too much. The process is slow and often not of optimal quality. Our associative, automatic thinking is faster and often more correct. The more we think, the greater is the risk that we will mess things up and that in the end it will be wrong. That’s why students who answer multiple choice questions often get the advice to go on their first intuitive feel for what answer is right.
Because our language ability is linked to our consciously controlled thinking, while the associative thinking takes place in deeper brain structures that are not directly linked to the brain’s language centre, we often find it difficult to verbalise the intuitive feeling, and when we try, it often becomes a hollow rationalisation. Relying on people’s explanations for their various decisions can therefore lead very wrong.
Thoughts about the relationship between analytical and intuitive thinking have a long history. The traditional Eastern idea tradition distinguishes between yin (the passive, female and intuitive) and yang (the active, male and rational). The Taoist philosophy behind these concepts emphasizes that they are complementary, equivalent, transient, and together they form a whole. When there is a balance between yin and yang, harmony occurs, while the opposite occurs when one dominates the other.
The circular waves that occur when dropping a stone in a quiet pond have crests and troughs of the same amplitude and both eventually die out in exact harmony. Similarly, we can consider our rational analytical and intuitive thinking. Both are needed, both are equally important and both work best in harmony with each other. Together, they create harmony and the optimum relationship for creative thinking, and if we allow one to dominate over the other, we simultaneously limit our full creative potential.
Einstein was not the only great scientist who realized this. His contemporary physics colleague, Danish Nobel Prize winner Niels Bohr, was on the same line. In his own composite coat of arms, he included the famous Taoist yin / yang symbol Tajitu and the Latin version Contraria sunt complementa (the opposites complement each other).
But it is not only the Eastern idea tradition that emphasised the intuitive as a contrast to the rational. Plato glorifies in his famous dialogue Phaedrus the divine madness that has great ideas similar to the intuitive thinking. He exemplified this with the gifts received by the Hellenic people from the intuitive abilities of the oracle in Delphi, the priestess of Dodona, the Sibyl and other inspired persons.
Sigmund Freud’s teachings are based on the interplay between the conscious and subconscious and his disciple Carl G Jung has postulated four cognitive functions of the psyche; thinking, sensing, feeling and intuition, the two of which are in opposition to the latter two (thinking vs. feeling and sensing vs. intuition).
As the understanding of how our brain works is expanded and refined, the neurophysiological evidence is becoming increasingly strong that the intuitive ability is both real and could be practiced. Experimental studies have shown that the intuition works best when we are in a positive mood and a prerequisite for its function is to believe in our intuitive ability. Exercising affirmations could therefore be a tool to better access our intuition.
The fuel for intuition is our knowledge and experience and the engine, like for many of the other creative processes, our amazing subconscious association ability. Whether this ability is then linked to a spiritual dimension with a divine inspiration becomes more a metaphysical question that anyone can take a stand on based on his own beliefs.
Jonas Salk, the researcher who developed the first polio vaccine, said in an interview: “I’m saying that we should trust our intuition. I believe that the principles of universal evolution are revealed to us through intuition. And I think that if we combine our intuition and our reason, we can respond in an evolutionary sound way to our problems”.