I’ve been having interesting conversations with friends lately on the respective role and value of intuition versus reason. Here is a link to an interesting and well-written article on point: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20180525-should-you-trust-your-gut-feelings?ocid=global_future_rss
Many perceive me as being highly rational and discounting the role of feelings or gut hunches. This actually isn’t the case. Most of the great decisions in my life (marrying Cindy, adopting Clara, starting various businesses, purchasing bitcoin early, moving to Puerto Rico, etc.), and even many of my day-to-day decisions, are very much gut-based. I’m an Enneagram Type 8, after all, which is well-known for acting upon intuition and instinct.
To me, and as explained in this article, intuition and gut hunches are simply urges that we experience for reasons that we can’t explain. And the reason we can’t explain them is that they arise from information being processed in the more ancient, primitive and unconscious parts of our brains.
We know that our brains process TONS of information every second outside of our field of consciousness. Conscious rational processing is therefore only a small part of our overall information processing capabilities.
This is very evident when it comes to interpreting body language, for example. When we engage with another human, we immediately and unconsciously develop opinions or feelings about their motives, their trustworthiness, their reliability, their amiability, etc. based upon, for example, our unconscious processing of their body language. For instance, shifty eyes may inform us (at an unconscious and almost instinctual level) that they are nervous or untrustworthy, though we never (or rarely) actually consciously think to ourselves “I just saw his eyes shift, so he must be nervous!”. No, the processing of body language generally happens outside of our direct consciousness and manifests in our bodies/minds as an urge, a feeling, an instinct or heart-felt conclusion. Because we are not consciously aware of the information upon which that conclusion is based, intuition can seem almost like magical knowing at times.
But intuition is not foolproof, and this is where I push back on some of my more mystically inclined friends. It’s not foolproof because the information that is unconsciously processed isn’t necessarily processed accurately or reliably. Instead, it’s filtered through a whole host of similarly unconscious beliefs, opinions and attitudes that MAY be accurate but also MAY instead be anchored in mislearning, misunderstanding or well-known and well-documented cognitive biases.
For instance, suppose that my father often got drunk and beat me on weekends (he didn’t, but just suppose he did), and that he often wore his favorite red shirt when doing so. If it happens enough, my unconscious may be conditioned from that experience to believe that men can’t be trusted. Or that people in red shirts can’t be trusted. Or that men in red shirts can’t be trusted. Or that people can’t be trusted on weekends. Or that anyone who drinks can’t be trusted. Or some combination of those things. If you ask my conscious self whether I actually believe any of those things, it would of course deny it. But that doesn’t change the fact that I FEEL or intuit something disconcerting whenever I’m around men, or men in red shirts, or people who drink, etc. Ask me WHY I feel that anxiety and I’d be at a loss to explain it, but it’s nonetheless very real and very impactful.
Another example: Humans have multiple well-documented and well-described cognitive biases. One of those is towards tribalism. At an unconscious, almost instinctual level (and whether the result of genetics, early conditioning or both), humans of all cultures and at all known times have been generally suspicious of “others”—people who look different, dress differently, have different customs, etc. This unconscious skepticism can manifest as overt racism or some other -ism, but more often it lurks completely unrecognized in our unconscious where it insidiously influences our lives by influencing our hunches.
We know that the information processed by our unconscious minds is often filtered through one or more of these hidden screens our biases, many of which are simply inaccurate in a given situation. As a result, that unconscious “hunch” or intuition that we may have about that stranger we pass on the street may well be highly inaccurate. Or, it might not be. How are we to know?
This is where reason comes into play. Given the nature of intuition (the processing of information outside of our field of conscious that manifest as a feeling, hunch, urge or conclusion), we’d be insane to ignore it. After all, intuition is in fact based upon information that is known to some part of us but that simply lies outside of our ability to consciously process it. Automatically dismissing or discounting that information seems unwise.
At the same time, it’s also unwise to just automatically accept that feeling, hunch, urge or conclusion as “true.” After all, it was almost certainly filtered through an untold number of unconscious biases, paradigms and beliefs that may well be completely inaccurate, therefore leading to an inaccurate hunch. So, what do we do?
The process of “waking up” is one of realizing just how much our lives are ruled by these unconscious screens, and then working to bring the existence and nature of such screens into consciousness where they can be observed and analyzed (using reason) for accuracy and worthiness. Accurate ones should be retained, but inaccurate ones must be discarded.
Unfortunately, discarding an inaccurate unconscious screen isn’t as easy as it sounds. Such screen ultimately became anchored in our unconscious because of some highly emotional event, or likely a series of them. It will almost certainly take a series of similarly highly emotional but contradictory events to cancel out or “overwrite” the old programming.
Simply understanding intellectually and rationally that a screen is invalid won’t likely deprive it of its power. Only sufficiently strong and sufficiently repeated counter-emotions can do that. We begin to “wake up” when we can consciously recreate emotional counter-experiences in our lives that are designed to cancel out and overwrite inaccurate and unreliable screens that become anchored in our unconscious minds without our consent or assent.
As C. G. Jung once said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
Only once we have sufficiently “purified” the unconscious mind of inaccurate and misleading screens can we unquestionably rely on our intuition or “hunches”. And once that’s done, intuition may well become the dominant and most reliable form of knowing (because more information can always be processed unconsciously than consciously). Until then, these hunches alert us to the existence of such unconscious screens and afford us an opportunity to bring them to light where their usefulness and reliability can be analyzed by the intellect.