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 what is "too spicy."
During this situation, the pairing between the word "spicy," eating the ghost pepper dish, and the uncomfortable consequence created an intense experience that made him avoid other spicy foods in the future. Most associations we learn are fragile and can take many trials to learn. With taste aversion you only need one rotten or excruciatingly horrible experience to cue your brain not to eat that food again. The language behind this relationship caused him to learn this extremely quickly, despite most other spicy foods not containing that heat level. As he becomes exposed to more examples of the taste of spicy food, he will form better intuition. Changing his behavior to start correctly differentiating between "good level of spicy" versus "too spicy."
The part that is scary and makes humans vulnerable is that we can learn these relationships and respond intuitively based on things that are not true. This young lad got turned off to a whole class of foods across every culture because someone told him a single sentence backed by an experience. What else is possible if we use language to teach certain intuitions?
Magic, Sorcery, & the Occult
When working with a fortune teller, medium, or witch, they often claim they are exploring supernatural things to tell you something about your fate or something meaningful. I mean, getting paid for doing fantasy work is pretty cool, and the reactions that you get from some of the customers must be outstanding! What's the best way to get more money and better customer responses? Tell them what they want to hear!
These positions are skilled art forms. It's pretty tricky to make a prediction about someone's life and have them believe it will come true, but it's been happening for centuries! Just like us, they gain an intuitive skill set through multiple exemplar training and feedback, which could take years of practice. When the full moon is approaching, a witch may have found another person who identifies as a witch would be more open to explanations surrounding moon energy. Perhaps a medium learned that if someone comes in with a sadder demeanor, they are more likely to have lost someone recently and respond better to their heartwarming messages. Or, maybe the fortune teller sees the man who recently spent hi last dollars on lotto tickets. They learn that making predictions about a soon-to-be win results in a repeat customer. For an experienced occult practitioner, the examples and explanations may seem limitless! However, as much as they may deny it, this is a skill of reading details about people and practicing telling them what they want to hear. Not summoning secret spirits and casting spells.
The Language of Intuition
Intuition training backed with language is a potent tool used all over society. We saw how one experience with the young lad eating spicy food earlier can form strong avoidance to ALL spicy foods, even though most of them aren't that bad. People can also use language to spur generalizations that create intense emotions for or against a particular class of things or people. Look at these two statements below:
The "Do nothing Democrats" are all so lazy
Republicans are all a bunch of Redneck hicks
The targeted audiences of these statements could probably think of at least 1 example of an individual that fits both the label and the unfriendly characteristic. Since these characteristics are disagreeable, it makes the individuals more likely to avoid people that describe themselves as that label. This generalization prevents multiple exemplar training from occurring. Despite fitting the associated brand, an individual is less likely to contact examples where these characteristics don't apply - like a democrat who is not lazy or a republican who is not a redneck hick. As a result, a polarization between these groups was formed. This human behavior change technology was used to create harmful and untrue stereotypes in recent history. It serves as a basis for generalizations such as all Muslims being terrorists, recent increases in racism against Asians, and all criminals and drug users being scum humans. Not to mention the targeted warfare of words against black and native Americans throughout our history. It's a powerful tool that can cause devastating effects that last years or even decades if used by irresponsible people.
Language in intuition training can be used equally for good. These cover many of the rules you hear growing up and attending school. Here are some excellent examples that maybe we should collectively preach and practice more:
Treat others the way that you want to be treated
(even better if it's the way that they want to be treated!)
Always help out someone in need when you can
Do things that better the lives of everyone
Let's wrap up the key points:
Intuition always stems from a person's learning history
Often through multiple exemplar training and language
Anyone, even a pigeon, can learn to respond intuitively
Intuition is not always correct
Humans are susceptible to unhealthy intuition training, especially when language is involved
We can do better by helping the world do healthier intuition training with our communities
Post your thoughts below! Do you agree with this analysis of intuition training? Is there some intuition training you experienced that you want to retrain? Has something about intuition been bothering you? How do you plan on doing more productive intuition training within your community?
Nick's philosophical approach to life was altered (radically) at the young age of 19 when he was first introduced to behaviorism and Skinner's approach to Psychology at Western Michigan University. Since then, he has spent the majority of his professional career teaching behavior analysis, seeking new opportunities to disseminate behavior analysis, and have a positive impact on those who interact with him. In his spare time, Nick enjoys making people laugh, spending time in the mountains, skiing, cycling, singing, nerding out on crypto, snuggling with his dog, and making memories with his friends.