“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant.”
We are sometimes so focused on achievement and meeting the standards imposed by others, that we disconnect from what we really want and love doing. We disconnect from our authentic self. Even those challenging goals we set for ourselves, are not always our goals. How do we know it? Because we don’t feel any joy once we achieved them. We tick a box and move to the next thing, and we forget to check-in with our heart. When we achieve something that is not in line with what we truly want, we don’t feel any pride and we don’t feel motivated to do more of that. We just don’t feel much of anything.
For a long time I was like that. Doing more and more with every goal that I achieved and every box that I ticked. There was never a finish line, but every achievement was just raising the bar higher and higher. The image I have in my mind is that of poor Boxer, the loyal hard working horse from Orwell’s Animal Farm. Whenever faced with a new life hardship, with a new disappointment or moral conflict, Boxer just kept repeating his credo: “I will work harder. I will work harder”.
As a young adult in my mid twenties, finding my way in the world of business, I learned very fast that work is a competitive space where, if you want to become someone and succeed, you need to work hard, exceed expectations, comply, prove yourself and impress others with how smart and reliable you are. Success seemed to have a clear recipe, but as I was looking around, I could not see anyone who was getting there. Everyone was running towards a distant future dream, like a Fata Morgana, but nobody knew how it actually felt like to be there. There was always a next thing that everyone was chasing.
What I also soon learned was that business was a tough game and no place for being soft and emotional. I was told that words like I feel, I hope and other touchy-feely expressions from the emotional repertoire, should be banned. They can make you lose credibility and diminish your power and authority. They can make you look weak and insecure. We should rather stick to facts, numbers and logical data at all cost.
I had internalized this idea so deeply, that any sign of emotion or intuition coming to surface, made me feel uncomfortable and insecure. I focused on using my analytical and logical left brain for so long, that I switched off completely from my intuitive and creative right brain. I lost touch with my authentic self, because I shut off an important part of who I was.
But as I started to practice mindfulness during the last few years, I realized how wrong I was to switch off and disconnect from my intuitive side. To start with, I realized I had an intuitive side, which was already a huge milestone, coming from being the one who didn’t believe in any spiritual mumbo jumbo. Moreover, as I started to reflect more on my life and who I was, I also realized that intuition has served me well many times, when I was standing at a crossroad and needed to take life changing decisions.
I remember when I was in the ninth grade, the first year of high school, and I felt like a complete outsider. I was still playing table tennis and had enrolled to the sports school, where we studied four hours a day and had no homework. I was shocked by how low the standards were, and everything felt completely off. So one day, out of nowhere, I asked my mother if I could move to another school. Somewhere studying was actually taken seriously. My mom was confused, as most teenagers of my age wanted to study less, not more. But that decision I took then, was the result of a feeling. The result of listening to an inner voice saying this is not the place for you, move on.
Every time I changed jobs or moved on to a different place, I noticed a similar pattern. At some point, the environment I was in, didn’t feel right anymore. Even when there were enough objective reasons to stay, something was telling me it was time to move on. I like to call this a “Goldilocks moment”. Like in the story of Goldilocks and the three bears, when there are too many times that I hear myself saying “it’s too hot” or “it’s too cold”, I know it’s time to act on that gut feeling. This doesn’t mean I take decisions fully based on an impulse. But that feeling tells me it’s time to stop and reflect on the situation. It’s time to gather all the facts, look at the situation from all angles and take a decision.
What Is Intuition Anyway?
If we look at the official definition of the word, intuition is the ability to understand something instinctively, without the need for conscious reasoning, but rather based on feelings. Another word for intution is instict, and when we say instint, we immediately make an easier connection to our evolution as human beings. Paul D. McLean developed a theory of the brain evolution that he called the triun brain, to explain in an oversimplified way the main functions of the three parts of the brain. You can also watch this very short explanatory video from Robert Sapolsky to better understand how these three parts of the brain work together:
1. The reptilian brain gives us the the same wiring that reptiles have and it’s 500 million years old. It’s responsible for all the regulatory functions like body temperature changes that cause sweat and shiver, our instinctive responses, body sensations and impulses. The reptilian brain is involved with primitive drives related to thirst, hunger, sexuality, and territoriality, as well as habits like putting your keys in the same place every day without thinking about it or riding a bike. This part of the brain gives us automatic responses and makes us act instinctively and unconsciously.
2. The limbic system that we inherit from mammals is 150 million years old and responsible for our emotions. Especially the amygdala, plays a vital role in controlling various emotional behaviors, such as fear, rage, anxiety. The fight or flight response, also known as acute stress response, is a survival mechanism that allows individuals to react promptly to a life-threatening situation. The limbic system plays a pivotal role in controlling such behavior.
3. The neocortex, only 200.000 years old is the logical and rational brain that differentiates humans from other mammals. It controls language and consciousness. The neocortex is also involved in higher functions like motor commands, sensory perception, conscious thought, and spatial reasoning. It builds connections between the different parts of the brain.
These different layers of our brain talk to each other constantly and influence each other both from bottom up (when we’re hungry, we are easily irritated and we take poorer decisions) and from top down (when we feel strong emotions, our heart beats faster, we sweat or feel sick to our stomach).
When we talk about intuition, we talk about certain automatisms that we either have built in our biology through human evolution, or we formed in time, by repeating certain actions, thoughts and behaviors until they formed into habits. Let’s call these native intuition and acquired intuition.
The native intuition, which comes with our standard packaging as humans, can be easily observed in the behavior of children. Small children have no understanding of cultural rules, they don’t know what is polite and what not, they don’t behave in socially accepted ways, in order to gain acceptance and recognition of others. They act on their first impulses and do whatever they feel like in the moment. Children say things like “you’re ugly” and they hide behind their mom’s legs when they are afraid. Their behavior is in large part determined by the reptilian and limbic brains. Only as their social and cognitive functions develop, they start learning how to regulate their impulses and emotions and they start developing socially accepted behaviors, that sometimes go against their natural and instinctual responses.
In her fascinating book, How to do the work, Dr. Nicole LePera goes deep in analyzing how social pressure and the way in which we were parented, can disconnect us from our authentic self and from who we were as children. We end up living a life that is not aligned with who we are (personality, motivations and beliefs) and what we truly want in life (fulfilling work, loving relationships and memorable experiences). Dr. LePera explains that when we feel that lack of coherence and alignment in our life, connecting to our intuition can get us unstuck. What she means by intuition is an innate and unconscious wisdom that can guide us in the right direction, when we feel lost.
“It’s the evolutionarily driven gut instinct that helped keep us alive throughout human history and still speaks to us; it’s that feeling of the hair on the back of our neck standing up when we walk down a dark alley alone, it’s the deep belly feeling of distrust we get when we encounter someone we have no logical reason to doubt, it’s that spine tingle we get when we meet someone we know is special. This is your intuitive Self speaking from your soul through your physiology.” Nicole LePera
When we are raised by parents who constantly tell us what to do, criticize us and deny our own reality, we start disconnecting from our intuition and may end up rejecting it and not trusting it anymore. The same happens at work, when we are surrounded by unsupportive peers, know-it-all critical bosses and a toxic environment where success is solely defined by achievement, results and status.
Expert Intuition. When It Helps...
The other type of intuition that we all have, is the one we acquired through experience and expertise. This type of intuition is equally based on feelings and facts. But the kind of facts that our conscious memory cannot retrieve anymore, so they’re more difficult to grasp. This happens when we have a deja-vu and the answer to a problem at hand, just comes to us out of nowhere. Researchers at Leeds University concluded that intuition is a very real psychological process where the brain uses past experiences and cues from the self and the environment to make a decision. The decision happens so quickly that it doesn’t register on a conscious level.
One interesting body of work that looks at this very closely, is Gary Klein’s research on firefighters and the way they make quick intuitive decisions in times of crisis. He looked at behaviors and situations that showed how expertise manifests itself by seeing patterns that other people don’t see. An experienced firefighter who saw thousands of fires in many different contexts, will be able to predict with accuracy how a fire behaves and what actions should be taken next. What seems like intuition from the outside, is a matter of experience generating automatic responses.
The same can be said of chess masters who can announce a checkmate in five moves or a doctor who names a clear diagnosis in a glance. Expert intuition looks like magic, but it’s not. Herbert Simon, who studied chess masters, showed that after thousands of hours of practice they come to see the pieces on the board differently from the rest of us:
“The situation has provided a cue; this cue has given the expert access to information stored in memory, and the information provides the answer. Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition.”