How—And Where—Intuition Actually Works
First, let’s consider how—and where—humans think, human beings actually have three brains. Since both our hearts and our intestines have neural tissue, we have the heart-brain, the gut-brain and the brain that sits in our cranium (or, if you count the one that sits in our cranium as three—reptile, mammalian, and human neo-cortex—then we actually have five brains!). Intuition operates in all of these brains, so it’s essential to understand how intuition actually works.
Where You Think:
- Reptilian Brain: Instinct
- An innate inclination toward a particular behavior in response to a certain stimulus
- It’s hardwired in the body from birth to keep us “not dead”
- Examples: we pull away from something hot, run from danger, etc.
- Mammalian Brain: Where much intuition, or “gut feeling”, occurs
- A natural, thoughtless process which requires no analysis or deep thinking
- Unconsciously developed over time from our experiences and belief
- Biases operate here and are unconscious—which is why they can be problematic
- Examples: trusting someone that’s similar to you, feeling good around someone, etc.
- Prefrontal Cortex: Analytical thinking
- Intentional, organized, conscious thoughts
- Used for planning, problem-solving, decision making
- Some biases operate here too, such as making decisions based on a limited data set, or past experiences
- Example: weighing the pros and cons of a decision before making it, analyzing potential return on investment before sponsoring a project, etc.
Check out these famous examples of intuition—what parts of the brain were involved?
- 44 BCE: Calpurnia, the wife of Julius Caesar, dreams of her husband’s assassination and urges him not to go to the Senate, where he goes anyway and is killed
- It’s not magic: Calpurnia was unconsciously reacting to the tensions and signs of political dissent brewing in the Roman Empire [some heart brain, some gut brain, some reptilian and mammalian brain activation]
- 1936: On a hunch, automobile tycoon Charles Howard purchases an underweight colt named Seabiscuit, who goes on to become one of the greatest racehorses in history
- It’s not magic: Howard’s business savvy and military cavalry training gave him the experience to recognize a gifted horse and a sound financial bet [some gut brain, some mammalian and prefrontal cortex brain activation]
- 1962: After being rejected by dozens of publishers, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time is picked up by John Farrar of Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, which had not published children’s books before [some heart brain, some gut brain, some mammalian and possibly prefrontal cortex brain activation]
Most cultures today worship the intellect—the prefrontal cortex functions—and thus often unintentionally condition children to discount their intuition. So let’s consider Albert Einstein and how when he discovered the theory of relativity he said (to paraphrase) “First I felt it, then I saw it, then I could explain it.” Sounds like a bunch of five brain activity to me!
How Intuition Works
Your intuition is much faster than your analytical mind and relies on feelings—note above I refer to the neural tissue we all have in both our gut and our heart.
We often hear about women’s intuition and how it’s stronger than men’s. Why? Two reasons: first, the insula in the female human brain is larger than in the male. The insula is often called the seat of intuition in human beings, and it’s where hurt feelings fester and hunches often spring from. Second, our female ancestors needed to ensure not only their own survival but also their children’s. While the males were often single-tasking such as hunting (with their larger amygdalas), the females were multi-tasking. The females were caring for the children, watching for danger as they gathered food, tracking non-verbal cues from others, and organizing environmental input and information.