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Intuition - what is it, and can we trust it?

May 12, 2018

Intuition can be felt instinctively by some, though it is a mysterious word which can create a feeling of unease in the scientific world. But what if intuition can be trusted, even in science? 

 

 

The word 'intuition' brings about an air of mystery to our minds, with the online Oxford Dictionary definition –

 

"The ability to understand something instinctively, without the need for conscious reasoning.

 

‘We shall allow our intuition to guide us'

 

'They had no firm evidence, but every ounce of their intuition and common sense told them it was a stupid thing to do.'”

 

While it seems to lack conscious reasoning, it seems that intuition should be counter-productive to scientific thought. While intuition, in itself, can barely be quantified, it is not surprising that there have been few studies that have proven the benefits of intuition, or even whether it exists.

 

Intuition may be a dirty word in the eyes of science -  to be avoided during scientific analysis, as objective thought has to be retained in order to prevent bias. A published study by scientists from the School of Psychology at the University of New South Wales investigated the influence that non-conscious beliefs have on decision making, to help quantify intuition. As discussed in their paper, they claim –

 

"Although most people agree that there is such a phenomenon as intuition, involving emotionally charged, rapid, unconscious processes, little compelling evidence supports this notion.”

 

 

In their study, they used a technique where subliminal emotional signals were communicated to study participants, as they consciously made certain decisions.

 

 

Based on the researchers' behavioural, and physiological analyses, they showed that non-conscious emotions can enhance confidence in a seemingly emotionless decision, and speed up the response time in making the decision.

 

In summary, this increased decisiveness showed that unconscious emotions (the ones subliminally communicated in the experiment) can bias seemingly emotion-free decision making. This justifies the idea that unconscious emotional influences can drive how we make decisions.

 

However, the study makes no comment on the usefulness of intuition. Instead, it could open up questions as to whether intuition really is reliable, seeing that we can be so easily influenced by external subliminal influences - which may or may not be telling us the ‘right thing’. 

 

Could there be different kinds of intuition, one drawing more information from the external environment, and the other from internal sources (from our own thoughts and memories)?

 

While opinions vary as to whether intuitions can assist good decision-making,  our own experiences may convince us that intuition has given a helping hand in challenging situations.

 

While scientific research papers have not concluded that it is reliable to make decisions based on intuition, we tend to assess this for ourselves based on personal experience. However, our reliance on our intuition when making decisions is always open to question.

 

A group of scientists from the School of Psychology, University of Kent said in a published study that "People differ in the belief that their intuitions produce good decision outcomes”.

 

Their study tested the validity of beliefs, by comparing self-reports of participants with measures of performance in a learning task. The researchers found through meta-analysis of the data, that participants’ beliefs did not correlate with their performance. It showed that peoples' ability to judge the veracity of the intuitions, or the appropriateness of their decisions could be limited.

 

So, if our personal experience of intuition seems to be the contrary to what science says, could intuition be like the dark matter of our minds? We know it is there, but we cannot pin it down, or quantify it. Or is it as illusory as a mirage?

 

 

Although this all sounds very airy-fairy, it does not take away the experience many of us have had of using intuition to help us in life. Intuition was very real, at least, for some of the most famous scientists and visionaries in history.

 

Albert Einstein (1879-1955), theoretical physicist who contributed the theory of relativity, said -

 

“Many people think that the progress of the human race is based on experiences of an empirical, critical nature, but I say that true knowledge is to be had only through a philosophy of deduction.

 

For it is intuition that improves the world, not just following the trodden path of thought. Intuition makes us look at unrelated facts and then think about them until they can all be brought under one law.

 

To look for related facts means holding onto what one has instead of searching for new facts. Intuition is the father of new knowledge, while empiricism is nothing but an accumulation of old knowledge. Intuition, not intellect, is the ‘open sesame’ of yourself.”

 

Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), an inventor, physicist and pioneer of his time, who contributed to the design of our modern-day electrical supply systems said -

 

“But instinct is something which transcends knowledge. We have, undoubtedly, certain finer fibres that enable us to perceive truths when logical deduction, or any other wilful effort of the brain, is futile.”

 

 

 

While some consider intuition to be a type of instinct, there are differences between the two, as 'instinct' is considered to be a deeper, hard-wired reaction, such as the instinct to flee when facing danger. However, it would seem that Nikola Tesla is discussing the pursuit of truth seeking, and therefore, the instinct of intuition.

 

This is not to say that Albert Einstein and Nikola Tesla woke up one day, and through intuition, effortlessly created their most famous contributions to the world. They embraced the scientific method through what they did, with trial and error. Though, could it have been intuition which drove them, to follow their ambitions, and ideas to fruition?

 

This is not to argue that we should have scientific papers providing conclusions about a study based on ‘a hunch’, rather than rigorous data analysis.

 

While it is valuable to deter the bias of emotions, or 'non-conscious reasoning' in the scientific method, perhaps intuition is a tool that can be useful when in the right context. This could be the urge to pursue a particular field of study, to investigate a particular problem, or be the underlying force of inspiration and curiosity that drives you in the right direction for your scientific career. 

 

What are your thoughts on intuition? Has it played a role in your personal life, field of study, or career? Please share in the comments below.

 

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