Rationally Speaking

A monthly e-column by Massimo Pigliucci
Department of Botany, University of Tennessee

N. 29, October 2002

On intuition

Dmitri Mendeleev is resented by high school students, and lauded among scientists for having come up with the idea that the natural elements can be arranged neatly and logically in a regular fashion, based on simple properties such as their atomic number. Mendeleev’s Periodic Table is one of the best examples of synthesis in science, an idea that brought about the ability to make predictions about the discovery of new elements. What is less known is that Mendeleev had the idea in a dream—not while he was sitting at his desk thinking about the order of the universe. There are other examples of scientific discoveries made, not through the stereotypical behaviors we associate with scientists, but during dreams, walks in the park, or sudden episodes of seeing a solution that wasn’t there until a moment earlier.

The role of intuition in scientific discovery has been has much maligned in favor of the importance of rationality in everyday life and human relationships. Worse, the two (intuition and rationality) have often been considered as opposites, as defining different types of mental activity, and even different kinds of people. Just think of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock: the quintessential rational entity, yet completely incapable of both emotions and intuitions.

It turns out that research on what actually constitutes intuition is rapidly demolishing some old prejudices (see S. Dehaene, et al., in Science, 7 May 1997) and, in the process, forcing us to think of human beings again as creatures that have to have both intuition (and emotion) and rationality in order to function properly—so much for Mr. Spock.

First, we need to look at what one might possibly mean by “intuition.” The most common interpretations of the word include the immediate understanding of something that is not obvious (“intuitive”), a hunch (“I’ve got this intuition”), the whole as seen by the mind at once (“an intuitive understanding of the problem”), or some kind of natural knowing independent of logical reason (“I just know it, period”). If we exclude the first, rather uninteresting, meaning, all the others have something in common, in that they refer to somehow seeing something before (or even despite) rational deliberation.

Neurobiological research on patients with damaged brains, or using functional magnetic resonance imaging of our thinking organ, show that certain areas of the brain seem to be particularly involved with intuitive thinking. Interestingly, the same areas are associated with emotions, since patients affected by damage in those areas not only loose the ability to intuit, but also suffer severe loss of emotional capabilities. This, of course, goes a long way toward explaining why popular culture has forged a link between emotions and intuition.

Where popular culture is wrong is in contrasting intuition and rationality. Research on the topic is helping to draw a picture of intuition as a bridge between subconsciously processed information and the action of conscious thought (see G. Vogel, in Science, 28 February 1998). Intuition brings the results of subconscious processing to the attention of conscious (and therefore rational) thought. Rather than being opposed to each other, intuition and rationality are strictly interdependent.

Not only does intuition provide the fuel for rational deliberation, but the relationship goes the other way too. One can think of rationality, when well used, as a sort of filter to discern good from bad intuitions: just because we have an intuition, it doesn’t mean that we are right. What it does mean is that we have something on which to focus our conscious attention. It is rational thought, through a slower but more methodical analysis of the evidence, that helps us decide if our subconscious was right in the first place. It is therefore equally imbalanced to be mostly “intuitive” (i.e., ignoring that one’s first impression can be wrong), or too rational (i.e., ignoring one’s hunches as surely misguided).

Interestingly, and again contrary to popular conception, intuition is not a generic ability, i.e., there is no such thing as intuitive or non-intuitive people across the board. Rather, one’s intuitions tend to be more accurate the more one has accumulated expertise in a particular field. A chess master’s intuition at chess is better than a novice’s, but the master does not have the intuition about car problems that an experienced mechanic has, and vice versa.

This means that it is possible to improve one’s intuition by working in the same field for years, accumulating so much experience that our brain eventually tends to transfer part of the processing to the subconscious: we suddenly seem to “know” the answer, almost before we can formulate the question. This also has important and often neglected applications. Consider, for example, the common business practice of moving people “vertically” within a company as soon as they have demonstrated ability at a particular job. What the company is doing is literally to reset the knowledge base and hence intuitive abilities of the employee with every move, with the result that one is kept in a semi-permanent state of incompetence. That can’t be good for business. Think about it, the next time you are promoted, or give a promotion.

Next month: The US as the ultimate rogue state?

© by Massimo Pigliucci, 2002