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Intuition: What It Is and How It Works

Examining the research on the biological basis of intuition.

Key points

  • Intuitive and analytic thinking should not be viewed as opposites.
  • Our decision-making often works best when we blend both strategies.
  • There is compelling evidence that the body's perceptual apparatus is continuously scanning the future.

Intuition is the ability to understand something instinctively, without any need for conscious reasoning or an explanation. The use of intuition is sometimes referred to as responding to a "gut feeling" or "trusting your gut."

Source: Mentalmind/Shutterstock
Source: Mentalmind/Shutterstock

It's a phenomenon that many people experience, but its biological basis is still an area of ongoing research and exploration. Here, I will review some of the most relevant biological findings and address the question, "Can we really rely on intuition, or is it a counsel to failure?"

What the Research Says

Recent evidence from Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, suggests that by 12 months, infants have an intuitive notion of probability that applies to never-experienced events and that they use it to predict subsequent events. The researchers suggest that extremely simple concepts of probability and causation, along with the concepts needed to form very basic epistemic (relating to knowledge or to the degree of its validation), statistical, and logical generalizations are present in very young children from an early age. It is this inborn ability to make inferences about things that are relevant to form accurate beliefs and retain new knowledge.

Rollin McCraty and his colleagues at the HeartMath Institute have performed experiments demonstrating how people respond to an emotionally arousing stimulus. The results were fascinating, showing that both the participants’ hearts and brains appeared to indicate receiving and responding to information about the emotional quality of pictures presented to them before a computer randomly selected them—as if they were responding to a future event.

Even more startling, perhaps, was data showing the heart received information before the brain. "It is first registered from the heart," Rollin McCraty explained, "then up to the brain (emotional and pre-frontal cortex), where we can logically relate what we are intuiting, then finally down to the gut (or where something stirs)."

The gut and the heart contain a significant amount of neural tissue and are connected to the brain by way of the vagus nerve, the so-called gut-brain and heart-brain axes. In addition, we know that neurotransmitters and hormones, such as dopamine and serotonin, can influence cognitive processes and emotions. These biochemical signals might also contribute to our intuitive responses.

Intuition relies on evolutionarily older, automatic, unconscious, and fast mental processing, primarily to save our brains time or energy. It also is prone to make mistakes, such as cognitive biases.

Intuition later in life arises from the accumulation of knowledge and experiences that are processed and stored in our brain's neural networks, as well as other cells and tissues in our bodies, allowing us to access this information quickly, often unconsciously.

Intuition is at the core of an epiphany; it is our own recognition and awareness of an idea or thought or vision for something that has yet to be discovered in the world. We all have access to that place if we only learn to trust that internal voice.

Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel prize in economics for his work on human judgment and decision-making, theorizes that human beings are intuitive thinkers and that human intuition is imperfect, with the result that judgments and choices often deviate substantially from the predictions of normative statistical and economic models. Kahneman believes that intuitive thinking has both advantages and disadvantages: it is faster than a rational approach but more prone to error.

Kamila Malewska of the Poznán University of Economics and Business in Poland has studied intuition in real-world settings and concluded that people often apply a combination of strategies. When managers at a food company were asked how they use intuition in their everyday work, the majority of them said that, in addition to rational analyses, they relied on their gut feelings when making decisions. Interestingly, upper-level managers tended more toward intuition.

Malewska thinks that intuition is neither irrational nor the opposite of logic. Rather, it is a quicker and more automatic process that taps into the many deep resources of experience and knowledge that people have gathered over the course of their lives. Intuition, she believes, is an ability that can be trained and can play a constructive role in decision-making.

Whether we rely on our intuition or turn to sensible analysis to make a decision will largely depend on our past experiences. Most cognitive scientists maintain that intuitive and analytic thinking should not be viewed as opposites. Studies indicate that our decision-making often works best when we blend both strategies.


Clearly, the biological basis of intuition is complex and likely involves a combination of factors. There is growing evidence suggesting that all humans are born with a basic ability for intuitive thinking and that, as we mature, as our links between the embodied mind, emotional processing, and intuitive thinking strengthen with experience, we may get better at it. Of course, if we fail to listen to this channel, like a muscle not exercised, our intuitive abilities will decline.


Cesana-Arlotti, N., Téglás, E., & Bonatti, L. L. (2012). The probable and the possible at 12 months: Intuitive reasoning about the uncertain future. Advances in child development and behavior, 43, 1-25.

Epstein, S. (2010). Demystifying intuition: What it is, what it does, and how it does it. Psychological Inquiry, 21(4), 295-312.

Fedyk, M., Kushnir, T., & Xu, F. (2019). Intuitive epistemology: Children’s theory of evidence. Advances in experimental philosophy of science, 122-43

Kahneman, Daniel (2017). Thinking, fast and slow.

Malewska, K. (2018). The profile of an intuitive decision maker and the use of intuition in decision-making practice. Management, 22(1).

McCraty, R., Atkinson, M., & Bradley, R. T. (2004). Electrophysiological evidence of intuition: Part 1. The surprising role of the heart. The Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine, 10(1), 133-143.

McCraty, R., Atkinson, M., & Bradley, R. T. (2004). Electrophysiological evidence of intuition: Part 2. A system-wide process?. The Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine, 10(2), 325-336.

Straus, David

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