Intuition: Its Powers and Perils

I’ve been thinking in recent weeks a lot about intuition, its powers, and its perils. To inform and develop my thoughts, I read David Myers’s book “Intuition,” which I reference frequently below.

Myers defines intuition to be a “capacity for direct knowledge, for immediate insight without observation or reason.” He notes that many people base their beliefs and actions on intuition and recommend similar practices to others. In some ways, this seems helpful. For example, experts often (but not always) seem to be able to quickly and effectively size up a novel situation relevant to their knowledge and experience. Perhaps this is because, as neuroscientist Antonio Damasio suggests, good judgment involves an emotional component often times based on previous experiences. In fact, brain researchers such as Damasio and Joseph LeDoux have found that some of “the brain’s emotional pathways bypass the cortical areas involved in thinking. One pathway runs from the eye via the thalamus, the brain’s sensory switchboard, to the amygdala, a pair of emotional control centers in the brain’s primative core. This eye-to-amygdala shortcut, bypassing the cortex, enables your emotional response before your intellect intervenes.” Finally, intuition seems to be a critical ingredient for creative breakthroughs.

On the other hand, people often times seem to rely on intuition in ways that are misguided. Myers writes a lot about this in his book, detailing how individuals often are inaccurate in their judgments related to the past, future, their competence and virtue, relationships, sports, investments, clinical decisions, interviewer decisions, gambling, and psychic predictions.

My interest in this topic largely stems from my observation that people’s thoughts and actions, in a given situation, often seem to be based more on emotion and intuition than on their more deeply seated beliefs and values. This makes me think of something that renowned educator, Parker Palmer, once said about human development. Palmer believes that people tend to be reactive in life, rather than reflective. Perhaps this is because we revert automatically to the more primitive part of our brains, rather than relying on the more advanced cortex. Palmer suggests that there are three primary institutions that help people transition from reactivity to reflectivity: (1) Education, (2) art, and (3) science. To this, I might add (4) religion.

I personally resonate with the idea that the ultimate goal of education is to help people to become less reactive and more reflective in a moment. As Myers writes:

“Awareness that our intuition could benefit from some correction, in realms from sports to business to spirituality, makes clear the need for the disciplined training of the mind. . . As Norman Cousins has argued, transforming schooling into mere vocational education misses the ‘biggest truth of all about learning: that its purpose is to unlock the human mind and to develop it into an organ capable of thought – conceptual thought, analytical thought, sequential thought.'”

In a recent comment in this blog, Dave suggested that personal growth should not be pursued as a learning outcome in college when other goals related to intellectual development, knowledge, and desirable attitudes and habits of thought have not been “met fully.” To be nit-picky, I’d challenge Dave to find me a single person for whom these latter goals have been “met fully.” The bigger point, though, in my mind, is that all of these ideals seem to harmonize nicely with each other. They do not seem to be mutually exclusive. Personally, the primary way in which I think students should be challenged to grow personally is, as I argued above, to move from being reactive in a moment toward being reflective. To do this, students must be challenged to develop intellectually, grow in knowledge, and, importantly, apply that knowledge at the right times in the right ways. In this way, I think Dave and others like him probably help students grow personally more than they give themselves credit, as personal growth is an important by-product of an intellectual life. Perhaps we disagree only in the extent to which we help to accomplish personal growth in explicit ways.

I also think that religion has the potential to stimulate reflectivity in everyday life. Unfortunately, however, this typically is not the case. Perhaps this is because religious individuals often times do not really internalize the teachings of their faith. Rather, they go through the motions without fully allowing the teachings to capture their hearts and their minds. This seems to be a problem with religions who do not find ways to fully engage its members and in members who do not find ways to be fully engaged.

Of course, perhaps the ideal way to help people to be more reflective, rather than reactive, is for parents to help their kids understand the difference and to acquire desireable habits of thought and action as their are developing (rather than trying to correct deficiencies when people become adults). Parents have a unique opportunity to train their kids to be aware of their emotions, their natural reactions, and healthier strategies for coping that allow them to live more consistently with their values. Unfortunately, parents often times are not reflective enough to appreciate this important calling and how to live it out in the daily lives with their kids. An important societal issue is trying to figure out ways to tap into this capacity for normal parents to make such an important difference with their kids.


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