Saturday, January 3, 2009


If intuition were real, then it would, of course, be evolutionarily adaptive. After all, a sixth sense of what's coming next is at least as conducive to survival as any of the five conventional senses.

But the problem is that it's extraordinarily squishy to try to study intuition in a laboratory. Unlike vision or hearing, it's not an always-on faculty, and it's triggered in a fuzzy way by emotions and contexts not easily simulated in sterile conditions. But there is empirical evidence to be found in our hard-wired reaction to the intuitions of others.

Imagine a group traveling on an important mission. They're lost, and unsure how to proceed at a fork in the road. One person pipes up: "I think we should go left." It's stated in a slightly blurry way, with eyes lifted upward and to the side, facial muscles relaxed, giving an impression of distant focus. It's easy to imagine a brief silence, and the group proceeding to the left, isn't it? No one would ask how the fellow knew this; it's clearly understood that he spoke from intuition.

Now replay that scene in your mind, with a slight change. Someone says "I think we should go left, " but it's stated in a direct, conversational manner, facial muscles engaged, and eyes alert and focused on the others. Isn't it likely he'll be argued with, or at least questioned as to his reasoning (and be summarily disregarded if unable to account for the suggestion)?

We have innate detectors for discerning an intuitive basis for statements from others. What's more, we have a strong impulse to value and to act upon suggestions we deem to have stemmed from intuition. Both are adaptive behaviors - but only if intuition, over long human experience, has yielded good results.

None of us has the ability to be intuitive all the time, but we are all strongly influenced by intuitive information from those around us. Why would we have developed the finely tuned ability to detect intuition, and the impulse to act on it, unless intuitive information was, more often than not, worthwhile?

For that matter, isn't it a kind of intuition that allows you to mentally play out the above scenarios, with some sense of confidence in the truthfulness of the projected outcome? Or, if you lacked sufficient intution to play it out in your mind, isn't it interesting that my account rings somehow true and convincing...because you've resonated with my intuition on this?

Or is my intuition off, and you're not buying it at all?


Big Fella said...

I think it was George W. Bush's intuition that got him in the mess that we are all impacted by now. This is one example of intuition gone very wrong, coupled with an unwillingness to see or hear of any alternatives

I am not knocking intuition though, just the application of intuition absent a willingness to examine other alternatives that may be available, and that, I call stupidity.

Jim Leff said...

I don't think George Bush operates on intuition (at least not in the sense I'm talking about), but on conviction, which is a different thing.

By intuition, I mean a sixth sense about what's what. Some sort of insight into things that can't be explained by rational factors. I'm not getting all woo-woo, e.g. spoon bending and mind reading. I mean those seat-of-pants hunches that come from out of nowhere and are often useful. Most skeptics scoff, and I'm trying to at least hint at a possible case for some non-bullshit basis.

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