There’s a certain amount of mysticism that gets attached to what we refer to as our ‘intuition’. Many a social media self-help guru or life coach will churn out motivational quotes along the lines of ‘trust your intuition’ without much insight into what exactly our intuition is, or how to trust it.
We’re led to believe that intuition is a ‘sense of the soul’, a superior way of approaching the challenges of our lives that transcends logic. Culturally, this idea of innate intuition has become another slightly elitist way of existing, reserved mainly for the most astute, dedicated, open-hearted and open-minded among us.
I am not saying that intuition doesn’t exist. I do however believe that it is not as twee and spiritually entwined as we are led to believe. I believe it is about having trust in how your mind operates, but that is grounded in so many different factors. Understanding those factors is key to knowing when and how to heed a sense of intuition.
So, What Is Intuition?
It’s useful to look at a conceptual definition of intuition to see where I’m going with this:
Intuition – (noun) the ability to understand something instinctively, without the need for conscious reasoning.
Seems pretty straight forward, so let’s review a definition of ‘instinctively’:
Instinctively – (adverb) Innate, typically fixed patterns of behavior in animals in response to certain stimuli.
Now we’re getting to the heart of it.
Our minds are devastating hunter-gatherers for information in order to form patterns. We thrive on finding patterns in the world around us, people, relationships, essentially within every single infinitesimal factor of life. What many people forget is how much data we absorb every day. Without the capacity to shift, sort, and apply patterns to this data, we would quite literally go mad.
We do this with very little conscious thought, but it’s continuously happening. When making decisions or facing challenges, our minds will ruthlessly search through our data, searching for the patterns, and attempts to figure out the safest way for us to proceed. The data we gather through our lives is also constantly being compared to the data encoded within our DNA. When we get an ‘intuition’ for something, it can quite often be attributed down to our mind’s identifying a pattern, no matter how tiny.
How Our Intuition Develops
Although intuition may be a product of our pattern-seeking minds, there is a wide variety of influences that impact the ways our brains absorb and interpret the information we receive. Let’s take a look at a few of the most prominent, and surprising:
Your Genetic Make-up
A popular theme in evolutionary psychology is that our behavior is predicted by our genes. No concrete studies have backed this entirely, but a lot of the research does show that our genetic make-up definitely holds keys to how our behavior can be expressed and shaped. Kendler and Greenspan (2006) studied the genetic influence on behavior in smaller organisms and animals and found that in the animal kingdom, individual differences in behavior are nearly always influenced by genetic factors and that these can be substantially modified by other genes and environmental experiences. From their research, they concluded that humans are also pretty typical in this respect.
Other research has linked specific genes to our ability to transport serotonin, the so-called ‘happiness’ hormone, that is responsible for feelings of well-being, learning, memory and more. The SLC6A4 gene has been connected with the onset of a number of social anxiety disorders (Heinz et al, 2006).
The Structure of Your Brain
We often think of our brain as the epicenter of our thought and emotional responses, but rarely do we give much consideration to the physical presence of our brain. Rarely still do we consider how the physicality of our brain impacts our feelings or behavior. Well, it’s quite a bit according to researchers.
In his book, Behave, Robert Sapolsky explores how impactful our brains are on a range of behaviours and how we express ourselves. He breaks down how the different regions of the brain have different functions and the influence they have over us. Specifically, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex have a direct influence on whether you are more rational or emotional when making decisions. Activity and how these parts of your brain are physically shaped will impact how you approach decisions and challenges.
‘Trust Your Gut’ (Maybe Not)
The other phrase you may have heard thrown around quite a bit is ‘trust your gut,’ but I expect you didn’t think it meant to literally trust your digestive tract.
The study of microbiome — the plethora of microorganisms, bacteria, viruses, and fungi that live inside your guts — is a relatively new area of exploration, but a fascinating one. These microorganisms support critical health and wellbeing functions including metabolism, weight, immunity, and mood (Dash et al, 2015). There are many factors that influence the development of the microbiome we host, and we each have a unique bacterial footprint.
Even putting the microbiome aside, the gut itself is far more influential than we realize. Often referred to as ‘The Second Brain’, the gut has been shown to be engaged in bi-directional communication with the brain, influencing our moods, and decision making processes.
Your Early Life Experiences
While our genes and biology do influence our ‘intuitions’, they are only one part of a larger, complex puzzle. Our early life experiences — and later experiences too to some extent — have a heavy role to play in how we perceive and interact with the world.
The timing and quality of our early experiences have a long reaching impact on how we engage as adults. Fox, Levitt & Nelson (2011) also found that our later experience is equally crucial in how we maintain and elaborate on our early experience. For example, if we had a parental figure who was distant emotionally and affectionately, but we are taught to love our parents, this behavior can be played out in later romantic relationships. We might find ourselves repeatedly engaging in unsatisfying relationships because of an early experience that tells us emotional distance is equated with love. So, when we meet someone who is distant, our intuition might tell us ‘this is how love is expressed’ (which is not exactly accurate). This can be backed up with the vocal expression of ‘I love you’ in adult relationships, so our later experience maintains this early misconception.
Often our early experiences and impressions are so deeply buried, we don’t realize the influence they have on us. We put our suspicions of a person or scenario down to our intuition, when really we’re recognizing a set pattern we probably saw repeated in the family home when we were younger. We just didn’t realize it at the time.
When Should You Trust Your Intuition?
The complexity of intuition can’t be ignored, but neither should we seek to dismiss feelings of intuition when they arise. It exists for the single purpose of helping you make the best decision for you, based on the life you’ve led. Our emotions and feelings are crucial in the face of life’s biggest challenges.
The trouble is the life you’ve led may not have set you up for the best version of success. For example, a slew of repeated failed relationships is a pretty good indicator that your experiences and intuition might not be leading you down the best path.
According to Dr. Connson Chou Locke, a leadership researcher and consultant, before trusting your intuition there are three questions worth asking yourself:
1. Am I an expert?
Research shows that it takes on average to become an intuitive, domain-specific expert. When facing a challenging decision, ask yourself if you are the right expert to be making the decision, and who else could you seek out for better knowledge and information.
2. Is this an unstructured problem?
Decisions that have clear, structured processes to follow, objective criteria and an abundance of professional data to help make the decision do not benefit from your intuitive intervention. To be really conducive in helping make a decision, intuition should be applied to aesthetic judgments — where there are no rules to obey, and the impact of the outcome is relative low.
3. How much time do you have?
If you’re time poor or there is little information available, but need to make a decision quickly, intuition can help you make the safest bet. It’s quicker for your brain to weigh up all the variables, pick out some patterns, and deliver the outcome to you via your intuition than it is to sit and deliberate over a heap of data for a few days. But be warned that it might still lead you down the wrong path.
Complex = Human
For me, removing the idea that intuition is some spiritual entanglement is important because it opens it up as a valuable concept for more people. As human beings, we are intensely complex and fascinating, without having to add anything extra.
Knowing how and why your intuition develops, and the potential influences that affect what it ‘tells’ you are important for helping you to make even better decisions. Knowing why it arises when you meet a new person, or ‘just get a feeling’, can help you further understand the complexity of your own mind. It can also help you recognize where it might be leading you down paths that prevent you from meeting your potential.