We are often told to listen to our inner voice, or trust our gut instinct, but what it that? The best term we might be able to find to define this phenomenon is intuition. Intuition is an unclear phenomenon to speak about yet only to research, but there is a growing body of work in cognitive science that looks to unlock the mysterious of our own intuition.
William James, the prominent psychologist and philosopher, is one of the early examples you can find who attempts to define what intuition is. He defined a system of cognition that works in two phases, intuitive and rational. These phases would later work very well as a foundation for the dual process of cognition: fast thinking and slow thinking, as coined by Nobel laureate and behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman. Intuition is a quick and largely unconscious assessments of a given situation based on a conglomeration of experiences and affective processes. You can argue that these processes have developed as a way to save energy in complex mental processing. Rational analysis would then be the labor intensive, energy demanding process of slowing working towards a result (or just giving up).
Based on the brief explanation of what intuition is, it’s easy to see the appeal of relying on a system that is energy efficient, provides quick and reliable results, and doesn’t really demand high level analyses. But just because the answers come easily doesn’t make them infallible. Here we address a major drawback of intuition; it’s overlap with compulsion.
When intuition meets compulsion
Compulsion, or compulsive behavior, is defined as an irresistible urge to behave in a certain way. Many of us will immediately think of obsessive-compulsive disorder, a mental disorder characterized by intrusive thoughts that produce anxiety and by compulsively engaging in seemingly irrelevant repetitive behaviors. Let’s not go down the disorder road just yet, because compulsion affects everyone to a certain degree – we should do our best to differentiate compulsion from intuition if we are to trust the inner voice that we so heavily rely on.
Because intuition is not based on deep analyses, compulsion can feel a lot like an intuitive sensation. There are times when this can be problematic, or even deadly. Think of the drug addict, who intuitively finds their way back to their substance of choice, or the cheater who feels “so right” in the arms of their lover. Without a moral judgement attached, these behaviors may create more problems in the long run but feel right in the moment, something that a lengthy rational analysis will help to uncover.
So what is to be done with intuition?
So what is to be done with intuition, especially when bordering on compulsion? The first idea is to identify where an intuition moves you, and to identify the feelings it produces. Although easy to write, making unconscious processes conscious is no easy task. The first step is to assess a situation where you felt intuition lead you astray and to analyze what led you to follow the gut feeling. Start with those, the feelings, add the context and see if you gain a new perspective.
It may help to give an example from my own journey into trying to understand my own intuition. In this case, I interrupted my intuition to add rational thought into trying to understand how to soothe my son. I remember holding my son as a baby and rocking him in my arms back and forth, feeling that intuitively the motion would calm the child – how often I had seen babies being swung to and fro to lull them to sleep. My intuition provided no result, and it was only when I tried to understand the perspective of a baby, through perspective taking, that I realized less is more. After considering the motion patterns that an unborn baby has grown accustom to, I changed the pattern. Now, with my boy clutched against my stomach, swaying little, moving with a slow but deliberate gait, he slept. Calming the inner voice, like a child, can be all about slowing down and taking time for a deeper understanding.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.
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