A&O – INTUITION (05-24-2017)





When we appeal to the call of the wild to rescue us with ancient wisdom.   Or when  action is more urgent than tedious review.

INTUITION is generally regarded as the “non-conscious” dimension of COGNITION 

 see A&O notes on CONSCIOUSNESS




INTUITION is, of course, related to consciousness, of which Karl Pearson noted that “Its position appears to be that of a helpless spectator of but a minute fraction of a huge amount of automatic brain work”.[ii]

  • “There are many ways to define intuition, but all present a kind of conundrum. The act of reflecting on intuition is precisely what intuition isn’t. Intuition is really your brain on autopilot, performing its actions of processing information outside of your awareness that it’s operating. It’s nonconscious thinking.” (Hara Estroff Marano, Trusting Intuition  PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, May 04, 2004; reviewed on November 15, 2007)


It appears intuition is much but certainly not all of consciousness – But There is an interesting paradox here: that of having more access to information and greater potential for creativity when higher faculties are suppressed



INTUITION involves the recruitment of nonconscious knowledge in the service of an action system.  Knowledge involves:

  • Reflexes (congenital responses to stimuli that are highly resistant to external influence);
  • automatization of learned habits (“Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them”)[iii] and
  • latent learning, observations that participate in a learning paradigm although we may be utterly unaware of them.[iv] Latent patterns of behavior involve memory that can be triggered by redintegration.


Some knowledge may be congenital (inborn, under major genetic influence) or we may have aspects of information input—integration—output (sensory, brain, action) that enable very rapid learning (e.g., imprinting) (creating the impression of congenital because of its developmental timing and rapidity of acquisition)


Most action, notably the expression of learned habits, is based on such intuitive knowledge.   It may begin with intense conscious attention, but learned habits more-or-less gradually become intuitive as they are automatized.   When there is sufficient novelty to raise the levels of neurochemicals such as subclinical stress hormones, parts of the brain associated with motivation and conscious awareness are more fully engaged.    Stress hormones energize motivational systems and can activate areas that facilitate creative problem solving.  Conscious attention to meeting a need takes extra time, but in extreme stress, the opposite occurs, and the time-saving strategy of blocking access to consciousness is activated.  


With respect to problem solving Muriel Rukeyser, in The Life of Poetry (1949), wrote that “In time of crisis, we summon up our strength.  Then, if we are lucky, we are able to call every resource, every forgotten image that can leap to our quickening, every memory that can make us know our power. And this luck is more than it seems to be: it depends on the long preparation of the self to be used. In time of the crises of the spirit, we are aware of all our need, our need for each other and our need for our selves. We call up, with all the strength of summoning we have, our fullness.”    Muriel Rukeyser (the poet who said that “the universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”) also Wikiquote 

The connection between “mind” and “body” follows the outcomes of natural experiments (when we observe that a serendipitous or spontaneous change in one variable affects another variable, as when we inadvertently or accidentally ingest a drug) or artificial experiments (deliberate manipulation of one variable (as scientists do) has a reliable effect on another variable).

The SELF is an expression of our thoughts and actions based on non-conscious and conscious knowledge and their interactions –that is, INTUITION and AWARENESS.  In a given context, one or the other of these dimensions of the self may predominate – they can even compete with each other.


CONSCIOUS AWARENESS takes time and neural resources, so arguably the supreme expression of INTUITION is in time of crisis, when there is no opportunity for reflection.  In some situations (high stress) the capacity for reflection is even wholly forestalled.  Reflection is largely the process by which the expression of apparently impulsive action (as when influenced by bias or dominated by refelxes or habit) is rationalized and understood.  


When our several paths to action are in full harmony, evoked in full panoply …  and they are expressed in their primal fullness, the harmony has an aesthetic richness not felt at other times.  We may be in “Flow.”  



Although talk of “mind” and “body” is technically inaccurate, it does capture an important functional difference between two systems: a slow, cold, conscious mind and a fast, hot, unconscious set of bodily instincts, hunches, and skills.

We tend to identify with the cold, slow system because it is the seat of our conscious awareness and our sense of self. Beneath this conscious self, though, is another self—much bigger and more powerful—that we have no direct access to. It is this deeper, more evolutionarily ancient part of us that knows how to spit and move our legs around. It’s also the part that we are struggling with when we try to resist that tiramisu or drag ourselves out of bed for an important meeting. The goal of wu-wei is to get these two selves working together smoothly and effectively. For a person in wu-wei, the mind is embodied and the body is mindful; the two systems—hot and cold, fast and slow—are completely integrated. The result is an intelligent spontaneity that is perfectly calibrated to the environment. -Slingerland[v]



Traditional views of Intuition


  • Myers-Briggs  INTUITION
    • Intuition (N)[vi]
    • Paying the most attention to impressions or the meaning and patterns of the information I get. I would rather learn by thinking a problem through than by hands-on experience. I’m interested in new things and what might be possible, so that I think more about the future than the past. I like to work with symbols or abstract theories, even if I don’t know how I will use them. I remember events more as an impression of what it was like than as actual facts or details of what happened.


BALANCING CONSCIOUS and NONCONSCIOUS STRATEGIES.    The prestige of medicine combined with the urgency of mitigating disease states, dysfunction, or injury has brought the balance between intuitive and thoughtful strategies for problem solving  under close scrutiny. 


Greenhaigh (2002)[i] writes, “Intuition is a decision-making method that is used unconsciously by experienced practitioners but is inaccessible to the novice. It is rapid, subtle, contextual, and does not follow simple, cause-and-effect logic. Evidence-based medicine offers exciting opportunities_for improving patient outcomes, but the ‘evidence-burdened’ approach of the inexperienced, protocol-driven clinician is well documented Intuition is not unscientific. It is a highly creative process, fundamental to hypothesis generation in science.”


On making the right choice: deliberation-without-attention might be better in complex decisions.


“When making a decision of minor importance, I have always found it advantageous to consider all the pros and cons. In vital matters, however, such as the choice of a mate or a profession, the decision should come from the unconscious, from somewhere within ourselves. In the important decisions of personal life, we should be governed, I think, by the deep inner needs of our nature.” — Sigmund Freud


“Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is not always advantageous to engage in thorough conscious deliberation before choosing. Dijksterhuis et al. (2006)[ii] “…tested the hypothesis that simple choices … produce better results after conscious thought, but that choices in complex matters should be left to unconscious thought. Named the “deliberation-without-attention” hypothesis, it was confirmed in four studies on consumer choice, both in the laboratory as well as among actual shoppers, that purchases of complex products were viewed more favorably when decisions had been made in the absence of attentive deliberation.” 


“Common knowledge holds that thorough conscious thought leads to good decisions and satisfactory choices. … A second pervasive idea is that the quality of a choice benefits from “sleeping on it.” Rather than (or in addition to) thinking consciously, people usually feel that “unconscious thought” is useful for making sound decisions. Whereas conscious thought refers to thought or deliberation while conscious attention is directed at the problem at hand, unconscious thought can be defined as thought or deliberation in the absence of conscious attention directed at the problem.”

“Recently, we formulated the Unconscious Thought Theory (UTT) (21) about the strengths and weaknesses of conscious thought and unconscious thought, that is, of deliberation with and without attention. Two characteristics of conscious and unconscious thought are important in the current context. First, conscious thought is rule-based and very precise (ref). Unconscious thought can conform to rules in that it detects recurring patterns, as the literature on implicit learning shows. Second … conscious thought suffers from the low capacity of consciousness, making it less suitable for very complex issues. Unconscious thought does not suffer from low capacity. Indeed, it has been shown that during unconscious thought, large amounts of information can be integrated into an evaluative summary judgment.”


Spontaneity – a hallmark of authenticity



The Heartless Mind and the Mindless Heart

Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point. 

(The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing) –Pascal (1670)[iv]

read A&O notes on INTUITION 


In Janury 2016, “scientists announced … that they have created an intuitive computer. The machine acts according to its programming, but it also chooses what to do on the basis of something — knowledge, experience or a combination of the two — that its programmers cannot predict or fully explain.” (Editorial in Nature 2016)[v]

INTUITIVE KNOWLEDGE may not be accessible, but we may still “feel” that it is there:


    • “… the sheer phenomenological experience of knowing (‘‘noetic feeling’’) occupies a unique role in  mediating between implicit-automatic processes, on the one hand, and explicit-controlled processes, on the other. Rather than reflecting direct access to memory traces, noetic feelings are based on inferential heuristics that operate implicitly and unintentionally.” (Asher Koriat 2000) [vi]
  • TIP of the TONGUE Monday, September 28, 2009   …   Just out of reach, on the tip of the tongue … presque vu … IS THERE (as Poet Franz Wright wrote in his pursuit of revelation) …  “some radiantly obvious thing I need to say, though quite what that might be escapes me at the moment, as it always has, and always will.” (2006). [vii]
    • The anterior cingulate and right middle frontal cortices are two neural areas implicated in the TOT phenomenon. One study showed that, relative to successful retrieval or unsuccessful retrieval not accompanied by a TOT, retrieval failures accompanied by TOTs elicited a selective response in anterior cingulate-prefrontal cortices. The study also found that while attempting to retrieve information, subjects rely heavily on visual spatial clues in correctly retrieving the information. For example, some subjects in the study that were trying to recall a name described looking at the person’s face in attempting to retrieve the name. Also, when trying to recall the name of an author, the subjects described attempting to read the name of the author from an imagined book. The authors of the study suggest that “the extent that the subjects in our fMRI study used a visual imagery strategy when in a TOT condition, the activation observed in right inferior PFC could constitute the neural correlates of these efforts to resolve these retrieval failures” (Maril et al., 2001, p. 657).
    • Actually presque vu has more of a sense of being on the verge of epiphany … [viii]

Bringing me to the SPIRITUAL.  Intuition is at the heart of Zen: The contradictions provided by koans “increase pressure in the trainee’s mind until the structures of ordinary reason collapse completely, clearing the way for sudden intuition” (Huston Smith 1986:199)

[i] This document Began as Notes for 2001 IACEP … updated  (was: C:\Users\Greenberg\Desktop\NEW\IACEP Boston 2011\INTUITION notes Aug 1 2011.doc)

[ii] Karl Pearson was a protégé of Francis Galton and became the father of contemporary statistics.  ‘Generic Images’ in the journal Nineteenth Century (1879), p.433. In Karl Pearson’s The Life of Francis Galton‘ Vol.II p.236; sent to Mike Waller (hbe-l@3.com) by his son on 01/23/98

[iii] Whitehead spoke of the error of cultivating the habit of thinking of what we are doing, “The precise opposite is the case.  Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” …  “Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle—they are strictly limited in number they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.(Alfred North Whitehead (1911) Introduction to Mathematics ch.5.)

[iv] “Direct personal contact with phenomena generates a wealth of detailed observation which may never reach the level of consciousness and certainly cannot be expressed explicitly in scientific reports.  Yet such knowledge may surface later producing novel hypotheses and interpretation.” Etkin (1977) [This is reminiscent of Lorenz’s concern for a “diagnostic intuition” in  ethology engendered by long‑term experience with an animal’s natural  behavioral patterns, and certainly attests to the significance of subtly  subjective historical influences comparable to those that underlie the  artist’s education.] 

[v] Edward Slingerland, quoted by James Hamblinmar  (2014) “How Not to Try” in  The Atlantic Reviewing Edward Slingerland’s  Trying Not to Try: The art and science of spontaneity.

[vi] The following statements generally apply to me:

  • I remember events by what I read “between the lines” about their meaning.
  • I solve problems by leaping between different ideas and possibilities.
  • I am interested in doing things that are new and different.
  • I like to see the big picture, then to find out the facts.
  • I trust impressions, symbols, and metaphors more than what I actually experienced
  • Sometimes I think so much about new possibilities that I never look at how to make them a reality.

Adapted from Looking at Type: The Fundamentals, by Charles R. Martin (CAPT 1997)