Intuition is when we know something without knowing exactly why we know it.
It’s knowledge that isn’t based on conscious thinking or reasoning, but a “deep down” understanding that can be difficult to verbalize or share with others.
Often our intuition is accompanied by certain physical sensations – like a gut feeling, or a tingling of the skin, or a change in heartbeat or breathing.
Psychologists define intuition as an “unconscious associative process.”
Only a small fraction of our brains is actually dedicated to conscious behavior like reasoning and decision-making. The rest of our mind is working behind the scenes – recognizing patterns and associations that we aren’t fully aware of.
When something “clicks” unconsciously we recognize it as an intuitive insight, even though we can’t explain it.
As it turns out, our intuition can be a very important guide in the choices we make and how we live our lives.
It can be especially useful when we are overloaded with information, or pressured for time, or a cue from our environment triggers our brain in a novel way.
A 2008 study published in the British Journal of Psychology, from a research team at Leeds University Business School, cites some amazing examples of how intuition can be a reliable guide.
In one example, a Formula One driver during a race was randomly motivated to break sharply when nearing a turn. He didn’t know why, but as a result he avoided hitting a pile-up of cars on the track ahead which ended up saving his life.
According to Professor Hodgkinson, the lead researcher of the study:
“The driver couldn’t explain why he felt he should stop, but the urge was much stronger than his desire to win the race. The driver underwent forensic analysis by psychologists afterwards, where he was shown a video to mentally relive the event. In hindsight, he realised that the crowd, which would have normally been cheering him on, wasn’t looking at him coming up to the bend but was looking the other way in a static, frozen way. That was the cue. He didn’t consciously process this, but he knew something was wrong and stopped in time.”
A recent 2012 study published in the British Medical Journal found that doctors too can sometimes use their intuition to help guide medical decisions.
In some cases, they found doctors’ “gut feelings” to have even greater diagnostic value than most symptoms and signs, especially when doctors could sense that something was “wrong” with a patient even if an examination suggested otherwise.
In similar, but maybe not as dramatic ways, our intuition can be something that is worth following in our everyday lives. Here are useful guidelines to help you effectively use intuition in your life.
Our intuition is strongest and most reliable when it is about something we have a lot of experience in.
In both examples above, the individuals exercising their intuition are those with a lot of exposure to these particular situations.
The Formula One driver is familiar with participating in many races. And the doctors are familiar with treating many sick patients.
Both have a keen awareness of their craft that stretches far beyond how an “average” individual would experience these situations.
As a general rule, the more experience you have with a situation, the more comfortable you should be following your intuition.
On the other hand, beware of “gut feelings” about stuff you know nothing about and have little experience in.
The better our awareness is, the easier it is to pick up on intuitive feelings.
As mentioned before, intuition is often accompanied by physical sensations, so being attuned to our bodies can be incredibly important for assessing how our minds are interpreting a situation.
Practices like breathing meditation and yoga can help improve body awareness and thereby improve our overall sense of intuition.
Our mind isn’t just limited to the workings of our brain, but our nervous system as a whole. This is why so many emotions and feelings have a body component to them.
Therefore, to understand your internal processes, it’s important to watch your body and be alert when it’s telling you something.
Practice in small and harmless ways
Like all skills, intuition is something that needs to be practiced before it is mastered.
That doesn’t mean you should start practicing your intuition on the stock market, investing your life savings – but there are small and harmless ways you can become a more intuitive thinker.
One small thing I do is practice guessing the temperature whenever I’m hanging out in my backyard (where there is thermometer).
It doesn’t have any real consequences, so it’s a safe way to sharpen my intuitive abilities.
Small exercises like this provide a way for me to reflect on my feelings and sensations, then make a guess about what they are telling me. I then see how right or wrong my intuition is, and recalibrate the next time I do the exercise.
Other small ways you can test your intuition are by guessing how fast you are driving before you look at the speedometer, or guessing what a friend is going to say to you before you tell them something.
Be creative. There are plenty of simple and easy opportunities to test your intuition on a daily basis.
Use automatic writing
Automatic writing is a popular technique used to access our unconscious and gain new insights.
The goal of the exercise is to write down whatever comes to your mind without thinking about it or editing it.
You don’t have to write complete sentences. You don’t have to be grammatically correct. Your thoughts and ideas don’t even need to make sense.
Just write and continue writing.
The less aware you are of what you’re writing down, the better – because it means you’re accessing information that is flowing through you freely and naturally.
With practice and time, automatic writing can have some surprising results. When we let our unconscious take its course, we can often discover ideas and ways of thinking that we weren’t previously aware of.
This exercise also helps us think outside of pure logic and reason, where intuition is at its strongest.
Start off by taking 5-10 minutes and just writing non-stop. You may start off doing it consciously, but you’ll eventually get used to getting “into the zone.”
All intuition requires that we trust ourselves to some degree. If you doubt your feelings, you won’t ever respond to them or test them out.
Have faith that your mind is capable of making accurate, intuitive guesses. Because it is – even if you still need some time, dedication, and practice before you get there.
The guidelines in this post are an excellent starting point for discovering your intuition and improving it. Make sure to at least try out some of these exercises and give yourself a chance to build a more intuitive mind.
Learn more self improvement knowledge and exercises in the digital guide The Science of Self Improvement