The 6th Sense: Intuition and Science
Updated: Feb 22
Intuition is a mysterious concept often explained by unknown or abstract sources. We have seen this described in the spiritual form of claiming to be born with a spiritual ability, using stones, objects, or gems. Or those metaphysical claims of feelings or instincts that are difficult to describe. What if there was a way to scientifically understand how intuition is formed? And could we use this information to help train & practice intuition in ourselves and others?
To prepare for this adventure, let's first orient ourselves to how intuition is defined. Oxford defines intuition as: "The ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning." Understanding something is difficult to prove and imprecise from a scientific perspective. Let's translate this definition into "Will engage in the right behavior at the right time without the need to explicitly think about it." Using either definition, intuitive responding is everywhere in simple and complex forms! Let's check some examples. Maybe you can relate to some of them!
When you meet a person with narcissistic personality traits, and you tend to avoid them
When you take the correct path back on an unfamiliar hike without looking at the map
When you see a light switch, you intuitively flick it up or down depending on your desire for the lights to be on or off, even if it is a switch you've never used before
When you come across bubbling liquids with steam coming off of them, you intuitively avoid putting your hands in them
When you feel out the correct slot machine to sit at while at the casino
When you firmly place your bottom on a chair that you've never used before
Our past history with similar events can explain why these intuitive behaviors can occur! Perhaps you've dealt with narcissists before, which have put a lot of stress on you, making you wearier of people with shared traits. Or maybe when you last played the Krazy Kitties slot machine, you won big, so you went back to another one.
What is a Chair? Training the 6th Sense
If you ever took a philosophy class in either high school or college, you probably wrestled with the question, "What is a chair?" The purpose of this exercise is to frustrate the students. No matter what definition you come up with, there will be an example or nonexample that makes the definition too inclusive or restrictive. If their description includes legs, what about rolling chairs? What about couches if their report consists of a surface you can sit on? Next, the philosophy instructor will blow their impressionable minds away by telling them, "There is no such thing as truth!" But then what is a chair if we all know and can recognize one?!
Even though most people can recognize some objects as chairs, nothing is truly a chair. But how did those people gain that ability? This happens through what's referred to as stimulus discrimination and generalization. It can be taught through "multiple exemplar training," but let's just think about it as "teaching different examples." As the names suggest, this process involves teaching someone multiple examples of what you should, and should not, call a particular thing. It may also include what you should refer to as the same thing and which you should not (for example, both a corgi and black lab could be labeled as dogs.) This type of training results in favorable outcomes for increased communication skills. It can be a lifeline to understanding intuition much more, specifically how to improve it. This also allows the human brain to do what it does best, make shortcuts, and classify items into categories so information can be more easily understood.
This training can occur naturally and occur in a wide variety of places in our environment! Let's look at a mushroom forager who has gone out on successful hunts dozens of times in a particular area. They would intuitively go to the spots where they have found lots of unique and healthy mushrooms in the past because those areas are associated with the better mushrooms. In addition to being exposed to the good areas with the good mushrooms, they likely also experienced the bad ones and intuitively avoided them.
As a metalhead, I've gained some intuitive skills to easily differentiate between death, thrash, and black metal by guessing and seeing how the band describes themselves. Someone repairing things around the house may gain intuitive skills for knowing and grabbing the correct screwdriver for novel screws by making guesses when they see them. Or perhaps someone spending lots of time on their makeup, trying new things, and letting friends evaluate gains an intuitive sense for which colors blend best together.
The Wise Pigeons
Anyone can form intuitive behavior, and its effects may even expand to areas you wouldn't expect! In 1995, three behavior analysts in Japan experimented with teaching pigeons how to differentiate between fine art. During the experiment, pigeons were split into two groups. They were shown a variety of artworks from either Monet or Picasso. With group 1, pigeons received a grain pellet if they hit the key when a Picasso painting was presented. Group 2 pigeons received a grain pellet if they hit the key when a Monet painting was presented. After about 20 training sessions, group 1 pigeons were only pecking when Picasso's works were up. Group 2 pigeons were only pecking when Monet's works were up. With hardly any errors, even when ONLY showed pieces of art that the pigeons had not seen before! Although I'm probably trainable, I think those pigeons have better intuition than me!
As impressive as pigeons identifying an artist is, language can help facilitate the learning of intuition even faster. Let's take a look at a few examples. A young child points at an airplane in the sky and says, "That's a bird!" His mother responds by telling him that it is an airplane and not a bird. If the mother were trying to teach this further, she might even have him practice labeling the plane again correctly. As that child experiences more objects with wings and correctly labels them as birds or airplanes, the child will develop a more intuitive sense of what is a bird and what is a plane. Using language to facilitate this teaching will allow the child to learn these concepts faster than other consequences, like trial and error or his friends making fun of him.
Let's say an adult tells a naïve young lad, "Spicy food is uncomfortable to eat!" Young lad decides he's cooler than this adult and orders some spicy food containing ghost peppers (one of the hottest out there!). He takes his first bite, starts sweating, and attempts to keep his composure before admitting, "Yea, spicy food is really uncomfortable!" This verbal relationship between spicy food and an uncomfortable eating experience is now set in the sands of time for the young lad, engraved by his pain from the ghost peppers. Any food that people tell him is spicy in the future will likely cause him to avoid it. He will recall his previous experience, regardless of whether the food is only comparably mildly spicy. Perhaps his friend describes the buffalo wings as being only 5% as spicy as his ghost pepper dish. The young lad may dabble again in the world of spicy food and establish better intuition about what is spicy and wha