Intuition is something that I often find myself speaking about with students. It is part of our common experience and isn’t confined to realisations that change our lives or provide unexpected insights. Intuition is action without thought, it is how we live most of our lives. Decisions we take when driving are an example. We don’t think aloud in our minds which queue to take or when to brake it just happens.
The Science of Intuition
Intuition has seens some serious research study recently. Most noticeably from Daniel Kahnaman and Amos Tversky who won a Nobel prize for their work and resulted in a book by Kahneman called ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’. In the book, Kahneman describes how our brains enable us to get through the day.
There are two quotes from the book worth repeating. The first explains how our brains create a mental model or world view.
“The main function of [your subconscious] is to maintain and update a model of your personal world. [This model is constructed by associations that] [determines your interpretations of the present as well as your expectations of the future.”
The second excerpt explains how we actually navigate our days.
“Whenever you are conscious, and perhaps even when you are not, your brain is] asking [some key questions:
Is anything new going on?
Is there a threat?
Are things going well?
Should my attention be redirected?”
What he is saying here is that there is a constant feedback loop between our inner experience and our outer experience and it is largely unconscious.
Mindfulness makes this loop conscious.
How Intuition and Mindfulness work together
The way that mindfulness practices work is to continually return us to an awareness of these otherwise unconscious experiences. One of my favourite definitions of mindfulness is “Awareness of unawareness”. This process of bringing previously unconscious experiences into the light of our awareness works at many levels over time as our meditation practice deepens. Mindfulness is a toolkit with one tool. That tool is a magic lens that helps us see through the fog of thoughts and emotions that cloud our experience and that distance us from the richness of our experience in so many ways.
Mindfulness and Mind-wandering
There is much talk about how mindfulness changes the brain but far less about what that change actually is.
Two studies that are worth reading are:
Impact of meditation training on the default mode network during a restful state
- Taylor et.al 2013
Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity
- Brewer et.al 2011
These studies show that mindfulness operates on what we call default mode which is the state the brain is in when our minds are wandering.
It seems that connections to and from default mode grow after mindfulness training. This is probably our brains strengthening neural pathways that help to bring us out of the mind-wandering default mode state to full awareness. This has implications for many activities and circumstances but also provides a direct link between the subconscious and our conscious awareness that grows over time with practice. We can then become more aware of our unawareness and step back to witness our minds operating.
The Mind as an Iceberg
A common description of the mind is that it is like an iceberg with only a small part visible and the vast majority of work occurring where it can’t be seen in the subconscious. The work of researchers like Kahneman provide insight into this. He refers to intuition as “Thoughts and preferences that come to mind quickly and without much reflection”. What seems to be happening here is that we are retrieving information that is as it were, hard-coded, into our brains. The contents of our association cortex.
We can see by observing this exactly how we have become programmed to think, act and feel.
Sometimes of course, this direct connection with our programming can be unhelpful. Most of us have some sort of behaviour that, given the option, we would change so that it aligns more clearly with a behaviour that benefits our self-interest. Mindfulness is not a very useful tool for managing addictions directly, but what it does is to help reduce stress. Reducing stress helps of course so mindfulness is useful as part of an addiction programme. Mindfulness is however, the only tool that I am aware of, for observing our inner processes operating. We become incrementally more aware of self-talk, the operation of the inner critic and our unconscious responses and actions. This is one place where intuition and mindfulness come into contact. We become more aware of our intuitive responses.
The other way that mindfulness and intuition operate is that during meditation or periods of mindfulness, what I call intuitive realisations arise. We learn about ourselves and the causal links between experiences, thoughts and behaviours. I always keep a notebook by me when I meditate so that I can capture these insights. Most of what I have learned about myself, I have learned this way.