What might Intuition be...(not) exactly?

Following up on my two earlier posts on this subject, I thought I'd have a go at exploring what Intuition might be. I know nobody really knows, and I don't expect to add anything to the debate other than perhaps simplification.

In here lies a primitive, yet highly sophisticated mechanism for making sense of people and the world around us

In here lies a primitive, yet highly sophisticated mechanism for making sense of people and the world around us

Firstly, I think it's probably many different things that are known by different names and different models, but whether we know what it is or could even make a stab at describing it, we're all aware of its existence. By its nature, we don't think about it; can't think about it, so it falls under the umbrella term of Feelings, which bleed into true emotions (mad, glad, bad, sad etc), and instincts, and generally, what we don't think about  — what Jung described as "irrational function" something in between sensation and rational thought.

Kahneman and others have described the mechanics of non-rational processes by revealing their flaws and biases, and all agree that the vast majority of human mental activity is spent in this non-thinking mode — some suggest tens of thousands of non-cognitive decisions are made every day, almost as frequently as breathing. 

Intuition is a smaller part of non-cognitive processing

Intuition is a smaller part of non-cognitive processing

So, does this provide a clue to what Intuition really might be? Well, first let's restrict this to the more traditional notion, rather than the broader System 1 / non-cognitive thinking, of which Pure Intuition might be a subset. 

Kahneman, interviewed on PBS, explains how the study of Intuition's flaws is more revealing than its magic

Curiously, in his Thinking Fast & Slow book, Kahneman (conspicuously) doesn't use the word Intuition, preferring his non-judgemental labels of System 1 / 2, but in interviews he does refer to it, both in a general sense that System 1 is intuitive in its nature — i.e. System 1 thinking is like intuition, with shared characteristics — but he also acknowledges that analysis of its flaws has revealed more about it than its magic. The idea of intuition-as-magic has kept it at arm's length from marketers and the business community.

Intuition is almost certainly a primitive function, but it's also very sophisticated, capable of making sense of fast-moving, complex and unfamiliar situations — indeed, this is what it excels at. Kahneman likened System 1 to a computer capable of processing large amounts of data in big, simple chunks. Certainly it's built for speed — it exists to make sense of fast-changing, unfamiliar, dangerous or high-anxiety situations.

So, perhaps we can deduce from this that it's a primitive alert — an evolutionary warning against existential threats, from a time when we needed to make snap decisions; where logical deliberation would be life-threatening — when there wasn't time to think. But, it's much more than the reptilian alarm bell that makes you jump when you hear a sudden loud noise. It has many more layers and nuanced functions.

I think Pure Intuition can be broken down into three basic levels of functionality: Self (internal; self-learning), People (external; connecting with others) and Time (future-looking). 

Three basic levels of intuition at three volume levels — from faint to very very faint

Three basic levels of intuition at three volume levels — from faint to very very faint

Self Learning: (literally, in-tuition) is the primary function — the self-serving sense. Some — e.g. creative — people have a high-functioning intuition that's in a dialogue with their cognitive brains to rate the quality and validity of their ideas — and this is probably how it works in everyone, even if they don't have to earn a living with it; we all have ideas and they have to be rated. For people who don't have to rely on it for their livelihood, it gets lost in the more general System 1 activity. Its signals are mostly very faint, occasionally speaking up as 'a strange feeling'. Its low volume makes it very hard to hear — easily drowned out by the much more voluble logic and emotion. 

It's a very faint voice, more audible to people who use it more often and those who know how to listen to it.

It's a very faint voice, more audible to people who use it more often and those who know how to listen to it.

But, some people hear it, and some are more predisposed to it than others. You can learn to listen — astute self-awareness is a good place to start and a life of tragedy and heartbreak helps. 

Intuition is like radar (it's always on); lots of individual radars make a network

Intuition is like radar (it's always on); lots of individual radars make a network

People: One way to picture the external functionality is to think of everyone's individual intuition as radars all working together as a network.

Human beings pay attention to behaviour — what others do (not what they say). Our Intuition is fine tuned to look at and beyond behaviour to try and figure out intent — what are people doing, what do they want and what is their motivation. It's very sensitive — looking at the slightest of inputs; a mechanism designed for survival amongst social animals where threats were more likely to come from other people. In the BBC2 series, Inside The Animal Mind, Chris Packham points out that the most intelligent animals are social animals, and social animals lie and manipulate to gain superiority amongst their peers.

Intuition is our in-built bullshit detector.

So, with everyone's radar on all the time, all looking at each other and the world around them, seeing the same situation and inputs, it begins to act collectively as a network. 

If you're so attuned, it's possible to tune into the network — to feel the buzz of other people's collective intuition. Jung described this as Collective Unconsciousness:

 “My thesis then, is as follows: in addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche (even if we tack on the personal unconscious as an appendix), there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents."

An example of this might be how a crowd reacts to danger or the vivid judgements you make about towns and even countries from just through driving through them — the feeling you get from an inhabited place without ever meeting or talking to the inhabitants. 

One theory about Autism and Aspergers syndrome is that they're caused by a failing or weakness of intuition and are often associated with over-functioning or very specialised intelligence like painting pictures from memory or unfathomable mental arithmetic. It maybe that Intuition, like other System 1 processing, is an evolutionary adaptation that allows our intelligence to actually work by relieving it of having to think about the tens of thousands of decisions we have to make in the course of an average day. Intuition provides the freedom for intellect to be applied sparingly, thus preserving it.

Time: the third — most contentious — function of intuition is to look into the future. Of course, there are plenty of stories of about people predicting plane crashes, disasters or winning the lottery — inviting derision and wariness from logical folk. Yet, we look in amazement at animals' uncanny ability to get to safety ahead of earthquakes while our best intelligence and technology is blindsided. BBC's Horizon: How To Make Better Decisions told the story of a mysteriously elite group of US Top Gun pilots who are believed to have such fast reactions, their superiors believe they're reacting to a situation before it actually happens.

BBC Horizon looks at Intuition's ability to look into the future

My belief is that this is certainly possible and could be explained like this: Intuition is how we process the uncertainty of the future; that the concept of the future being ultimately unknown and unknowable is gravely calamitous to a mind that, for survival reasons, has evolved to fear and avoid uncertainty at all costs. There are many, many examples of people making hasty decisions where waiting for more information would have had a better outcome. But, we cannot bear the waiting and the not knowing (flight MH370, financial market collapses and the entire insurance industry being just three examples), and when we don't know, a powerful cocktail of imagination and fear sweeps in to fill the void of knowledge, very quickly wrecking any hope of making a good decision. So, intuition certainly has a complex relationship with the future and it could be that one of its functions is to act as a brake on our imaginations and anxieties — to tell us that the future is most likely to be like the past; that the sun will rise and the bus will come. However, somewhere in amongst this artificial construct of reassurance is a tenuous link with the actuality of the future — it's not all made up just to keep us sane. Natural selection perfected it so our ancestors survived on the days when the sun didn't come up.

Intuition and religion

Which neatly, if paradoxically, brings me to spirituality and religion. Putting aside individual belief systems for a moment (or the prickly idea that religion is a construct), most religions contain many similarities to the model outlined above — an inner voice, connection with others and something external and otherworldly and of course, a willing embrace of the (un)certainty of existence and (only certainty) of death through the idea of something beyond it. The thread that unites all these is the concept of Grace — the divine connection between the individual and God, channeling strength to overcome adversity:

"Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see."

Amazing Grace — John Newton (1725-1807)

Or, to express it in more secular terms — an unthinking connection between people and the world and an uncanny ability to survive.

And perhaps for marketing people struggling with how to connect with their audiences in the brave new world, lessons learnt from religion might actually be very prescient — religion is, after all, the oldest, most powerful marketing exercise of all.