Intuition: A Closer Look



     Our nervous systems respond to our environment.  This is obvious when we are startled by a sudden loud noise or when we feel anxiety before a job interview.  At other times, the physical responses are so subtle that they do not blip on our radar at all. Electrodermal activity, the measure of the skin’s electrical characteristics, is one subtle reaction of which we have no conscious control and very little awareness.  This autonomic response is highly sensitive to internal emotional changes and provides a way for researchers to objectively measure emotional and psychological arousal in humans.  What this means is that we can now observe our nervous system’s reaction to our environment and know that we are, on a subconscious level, aware of the risks and benefits of our actions. Science can see our intuition.


     Psychology Today cited a study examining the non-conscious factors of decision making in their article “The Science Behind Intuition.”


Click here to read the article:


     The subjects in the study participated in a rigged gambling task in which one deck of cards was “safe” and the other deck was “risky,” granting big payouts and big losses.  While subjects eventually reported having a hunch about which deck was more beneficial, researchers were able to observe the subjects’ skin conductance response when making a risky decision long before they reported having feelings one way or another about the decks of cards.  Their nervous system was anticipating the big win or the big loss before they had formed any rationale favoring the safe deck, even before they were consciously aware of any bias. 


Read the study here:


     Whether you believe in intuition or not, it is guiding you through life.  Some may argue that the evolutionary function of emotion is to program your brain, to flag certain actions or conditions as significant and allow us to navigate those significant situations effortlessly, without having to expend the energy required to reason our way through them.


     Our brain likes to streamline processes, to automate certain functions so that we can spend more energy composing music and daydreaming about space than focusing on each individual step we take to avoid falling over.  We’re all familiar with the term “muscle memory.”  There are many actions we take over the course of a day that do not require intense concentration in order to perform.  In fact, once we have “programmed,” so to speak, an action, the mere act of focusing on it actually impairs our ability. We are better at walking when we don’t overthink it.

Neuroscientist David Eagleman does an excellent job of explaining this concept in lay-terms. 


If you’ve never read anything from the neuroscientist David Eagleman, you really should check this out:


     Society has long prized shrewd reasoning and sharp analytical skills.  Oftentimes it seems that if you can’t provide a reason or justification for your thoughts and opinions, they don’t count.  Intuition is considered the unnecessary stuff of superstition, a fairy tale we’ve outgrown and don’t really need anymore.  The more we learn about the inner workings of the brain, however, the more apparent it seems that heeding our instinctive, intuitive responses and allowing them to guide our exploration of the world makes our logic even better.  We can save time and energy by allowing our skeptical front brains to follow our hunches. 


     If honing in and connecting with our intuition can improve our performance at the blackjack table, imagine what it can do for us in the arenas of nutrition, emotion management, and for our interpersonal relationships.  If we can trust our GPS to get us to our destination, we should also be able to trust the incredibly complex navigation system evolution has spent hundreds of thousands of years developing just for us.

Originally appeared on the Medicine People of the World blog