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Mystical, irrational

23 November 2012

THE woman was describing her response to a recent event. "I just knew what to do," she said. "I'm an intuitive person, always have been. I know things." Yet, for someone who "knows things", her life is littered with regrets, and so once again I wondered what "intuition" actually means.

Our English word is rooted in the Latin intuitio, meaning "a looking at, a consideration of". Carl Jung defined it as "perception via the unconscious", and Rudolf Steiner declared intuition to be the third of three stages of higher knowledge, after imagination and inspiration. He gave it a mystical flavour, describing it as a state of immediate and complete experience of, or even union with, the object of knowledge.

Here was direct perception, pure and untaught. The Apple maestro Steve Jobs made it acceptable for the techno masses when he returned from India and said: "The main thing I've learned is intuition." Suddenly, all self-respecting neuroscientists, who might previously have dismissed the idea as New Age hokum, are taking the matter seriously.

William James, whom some call the father of modern psychology, was the first to propose the idea that human knowing takes place in two different modes. Intuition draws on experiences in the brain. It uses a great deal of brain power, but feels effortless, and is fast. Rational thinking, on the other hand, is laboured, and slow, and requires analytical effort.

On the face of it, then, intuition sounds the better way to proceed. But, as we are aware, intuitions are not infallible. For this reason, most cognitive scientists regard them not as pure knowing, but as reactive assessments of a given situation, provisional hypotheses in need of further checking.

Citing recent research, the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci is keen to debunk the intuitive label my friend gave herself. "One of the first things that modern research on intuition has clearly shown," he says, "is that there is no such thing as an intuitive person tout court. Intuition is a domain-specific ability; so that people can be very intuitive about one thing (say, medical practice, or chess playing), and just as clueless as the average person about pretty much everything else."

This would certainly make sense of the many actions my friend now regrets; she knows about only some things. Moreover, Pigliucci says, intuitions do not arise out of mysterious space, but get better with practice - and the more practice the better, because at the heart of intuition is the brain's ability to notice and pick up on recurring patterns. Wide experience does not ensure accurate intuition, but it does increase the chances. In other words, we may "just know"; but we may be wrong.

Simon Parke is the author of Pippa's Progress: A Pilgrim's Journey to Heaven (DLT, 2012).

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