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A Neuroscientist Looks at Intuition


From one perspective, more than any magical ability, intuition is part of our evolutionary arsenal.

When we talk about “vibes” or unexplained feelings (be they positive or negative) with respect to persons or places, we’re in the realm of intuition. There are people with whom we establish ties immediately. And others who repel us for no apparent reason.

According to psychiatrist, Peter C. Whybrow, intuition is self-reflective knowledge which is regulated by the preconscious neural network. This doesn’t fully explain why we’re afraid to go through dark places at night, or why we smell milk that has been in the refrigerator before serving it, but it helps us to understand intuition as a skill that allows us to avoid danger and prevent problems.

The preconscious neural network becomes stronger with time. Learning to swim or to ride a bike is something we do automatically once we’ve learned. Likewise, we learn a series of patterns over our lifetimes, from social behavior to habits and beliefs.

The establishment of these neural patterns helps the brain to maintain the power available for other functions. If one action served us at some time in the past by preventing danger, our brain marks it as important and wants to apply that action in similar situations in the future when the pattern is again recognized.

Our intuition, though, isn’t foolproof. Although we may feel inclined to behave in certain ways in a situation, the impulses coming from the preconscious neural network – and which occur within microseconds – don’t take into account any new features that the situation might present. Thus, trauma or conditioned reflexes of fear in certain situations are irrational, and will often do more harm than good if reason doesn’t intervene.

Intuition, then, is a tool that we can recognize when we play sports regularly, when we ride a bicycle or when we read and write. We don’t have to learn the same code again and again because our brain’s network is already integrated.

The unconscious stores an unimaginable number of patterns and responses learned from prior experiences. These are presented to us in the form of feelings of attraction or repulsion. On the one hand, we rely on these impulses to make ourselves more aware of our experiences, but to blindly rely on impulses can prevent us from noticing differences or new features of any given circumstances.

Learning to trust intuition, then, is an art that must be exercised with care. Recognizing feelings of attraction or repulsion in ourselves, we will rely on them, but we still need to pay attention as much as possible to what’s different in any given environment.

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