Quote of the month:
"Intuition is often mistaken, but not altogether." - Mason Cooley (b.
1927), U.S. aphorist. City Aphorisms, Ninth Selection, New York (1992).
Serendipity, Accidental Discoveries in Science,
by R.M. Roberts, but where they really accidental?.
The neurobiology of cognition, by M.J. Nichold and W.T. Newsome.
of the Rational:
Essays About Nature
& Humanist Web
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
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
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.