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Your Intuitive Self

The intuition in all of us.
A lot of people think of human beings as animals that have lost their instincts – that, unlike birds who can find magnetic north or deer who seemingly come out of the womb knowing how to walk, we humans have no true instincts left and use modern technology as a crutch. Nothing could be further from the truth! Whether you’d describe yourself as an “intuitive” person or not, we all have intuitions – just another term for “instincts.” These are the little voices that flash in your head, warning you of some danger, or the strong emotional reaction (good or bad) towards a person the instant you meet them, or a deep sense about whether what you’re doing is right or wrong. When we have an intuition, that gut feeling, we know something, though we usually don’t know how we know it.

This all sounds vague, but intuition is a concrete phenomenon that can be scientifically measured. Cognitive neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s lab asked a group of test subjects to choose between drawing cards from two decks.1 One deck had a mix of big rewards and huge losses (long-run, picking this was a losing strategy), and the other had small rewards and small losses (picking from this deck was the winning strategy). Everybody eventually figured out what the winning strategy was, and switched their behavior accordingly. The interesting part is what happened before they figured it out. The scientists regularly asked the subjects why they were choosing the deck they did. People actually switched to the winning decks before they could explain why they picked the winning decks. Their unconscious intuition told them what the correct answer was before their conscious mind was aware of it! In fact, the subjects started exhibiting physiological stress (measured by skin conductance) in response to the losing deck very early, after only a few trials. They spontaneously developed an unconscious intuition that the high risk/reward deck was a losing choice, then acted on that intuition, and only then did explicit knowledge about which deck was the losing choice trickle up into their consciousness.

, 1942, Edward Hopper, oil on canvas.

There is an intimacy in all of Edward Hopper’s paintings that conveys a sense of deep intuition. Curator Barbara Haskell described Hopper's use of light as a "palpable presence." The viewer feels they've been invited into a private world where expression, body position, and other subtle clues indicate unfolding scenes of complex narratives.

Image courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago.

You’re walking alone outside at night, and you hear a loud crack behind you. You freeze. Your adrenal glands flood your system with adrenaline, heightening your awareness. Your pulse and breathing quicken. Your skin gets pale and clammy as blood is pulled away from your skin to your muscles. All of this is to help you make a split-second decision, to trust your gut – do you spin around and confront whatever’s out there, or do you sprint to safety? This intuitive sense and change in state is called a fight or flight response,2 and it’s an adaptation animals have developed in response to perceived threats. A mouse who catches a stray whiff of cat will have what is, physiologically-speaking, an identical fight or flight response to what you might experience. And this all happens pre-consciously – you intuitively recognize a threat and make a decision about whether to fight or flee before you are even aware a decision has been made.

Many intuitions really are just instincts, not all that different from the flight or fight response. They’re built-in feelings or impulses we have like “something doesn’t feel right, don’t go to sleep yet.” But other kinds of intuition3 seem to be gained through becoming an expert at something. Expert chess players often intuit the optimal moves, and may not be able to rationally explain why they made a particular move. Doctors develop medical intuition, and art collectors develop an intuition for recognizing fakes. What’s not really clear is whether these “expert intuitions” are fundamentally different from the “instinct intuitions” we can all experience. Maybe these are two separate psychological phenomena – or maybe intuition is just a side effect of being expert at something, and we’re all experts at living our own lives. So everybody gets certain kinds of intuition for free, just by virtue of being experienced at existing. But when people gain deep knowledge in some new area, their unconscious has a new sandbox to play in, and it builds new intuitions.

Jackson Pollock's Studio Floor

In the home that painters Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner shared in East Hampton, New York, is evidence of Pollock's intuitive work. Working on his famous drip paintings in this studio, Pollock walked around the canvas that was laid on the floor, applying paint from all directions, moving spontaneously and intuitively. Pollock was also famous for his love of jazz, which was described by Krasner, "The house would shake. He thought jazz was the only other creative thing happening in this country." Perhaps he felt connected to jazz because of its inherent reliance on intuition.

Pepe Karmel, a former curator at the Museum of Modern Art, wrote of Pollock's paintings, "Dripping, pouring, and throwing paint onto a canvas, Pollock infused his paintings with an unprecedented sense of rhythmic improvisation."

Image courtesy Stony Brook University.

When we describe someone as an “intuitive” person, we usually mean to say they’re insightful or creative. Creativity and intuition are deeply linked. The creative insights that pop into an artist’s head, seemingly from somewhere else, follow the same pre-conscious road as intuitions. Psychologists can parse creativity into an “idea generation phase” (think of coming up with a catchy melody), an “evaluation phase” (think of deciding whether that melody is any good) and an “elaboration phase” (think of a songwriter developing that melody into a full piece of music). Psychologists at Queen Mary University in the UK argue4 that the idea generation phase is pure intuition, albeit a somewhat turbo-charged version of it.

So if we think the unconscious “messages” we’re getting from our intuition are useful, is there a way we can nurture that intuition? Yes!5 Become a student of your own mind, and make a concerted effort to be more introspective. Start a meditation routine or pay closer attention to your dreams (making a point to write them down first thing in the morning will help you remember). Make a point to talk more about hypothetical things that could happen instead of things that have happened. Most importantly, try to build in a pause between your emotional reaction to something, and your decision to act on it. It’s in these brief moments - in which we’ve processed information but haven’t yet given our conscious mind a chance to crank out a course of action – that intuition has the best chance to speak to us.

Practicing an instrument will make you better at playing it—obvious, right? What about practicing your intuition?

For the next few days, pay very close attention to others’ body language before they speak to you. Are they tightly crossing their arms? Sitting forward? Try to guess things like what mood they’re in, or if seem nervous, eager, or bored.

Remember to also scan for less obvious body language clues. Did the corner of their mouth slightly rise? Did they blink more than usual?

After you talk to them, compare your predictions with what you’ve learned from your verbal interactions.

The more you tune in, the better you’ll become at picking up on things to help you predict. This is your intuition in action!


1 Bechara et al., 1997. "Deciding advantageously before knowing the advantageous strategy." Science. 275:1293-5, 28 February 1997.
2 Cherry, Kendra. “How the flight or fight response works,”, 10 June 2022.
3 Sutton, Jeremy. “Does time really slow down during a frightening event?”,, 27 August 2020.
4 Pétervári J, Osman M and Bhattacharya J. “The Role of Intuition in the Generation and Evaluation Stages of Creativity.” Front. Psychol. 7:1420, 13 June 2016.
5 Emerson, Janine. How to Nurture Your Child’s Intuition: Their Inner Compass.” The Mulberry Journal, Accessed 01 September 2022.

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