Trusting Intuition

How do we become effective human beings? It takes the right combination of thinking, including thinking about others and action. And, often enough, the right ways of thinking.

The ability to think, to reflect on ourselves and our behavior and to plan ahead, may be the feature that most defines us as humans, the crowning glory of evolution. But thinking is not an unmitigated blessing.

Sometimes people get stuck in it. People are often consumed with the past, ruminating about events and chewing them over and over. Others get paralyzed thinking about what lies ahead. Both forms of overthinking consume the brain’s limited capacity for attention, bring the mind to a halt and compromise mental health. One form is known as depression, the other anxiety. And both conditions are rampant in our culture today.

Intuition can be thought of as almost the polar opposite of either. And it is a reliable way of knowing, and valuable in many circumstances.

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.

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Can you trust intuition? It helps to know that the kind of automatic information processing that underlies intuition is something you probably experience all the time.

Consider that phenomenon known as “highway hypnosis.” You drive the car for miles without a conscious thought. You’re steering the car, reacting to road conditions and the actions of other cars, so obviously your brain is processing incoming information. You’re just not aware of yourself. Or you walk down a street, get lost in thought and find yourself at your destination without awareness of the processes that got you there.

It’s often safe to rely on automatic nonconscious processes for rote tasks, but what about more complex situations?

Nonconscious processes operate all the time in complex decision-making. Often enough, we just don’t give them credit. Often we cite rational-sounding criteria for our feelings and actions and do not disclose the subjective preferences of feelings that arise spontaneously.

Sometimes we override our intuitive gut-level reactions altogether, ignoring our native responses in favor of ways we think, for external reasons—such as to coincide with the judgments of others—we should be reacting. Studies have shown that we are capable of making sound judgments about food and, often, people based on nonconscious processes, but if we deliberately think about our preferences and decisions we can actually make them worse. The truth is that all of the factors that influence our reactions just aren’t available to our conscious selves.

There is no substitute for gathering information about any task or situation before us. But neither should we be afraid of not knowing every reason why we feel the way we do in every situation.

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