The Science Behind Intuition

science behind intuition

Date one. He was charming, a gentleman, and we were laughing and conversing about life over a beautiful brunch at one of my favorite restaurants. It was going perfect… a little too perfect. Even though he said all the right things and smiled at all the right moments, my gut told me that something was off.

“There’s something about you I can’t read. You could be a sociopath!” I chuckled. We laughed and I dismissed the thought thinking I was just being silly and over-analytical. Fast forward to a month later, little would I have known that I was dealing with a stage five sociopath. He turned out to be a complete liar with no remorse, who had researched me online prior to our first date in order to pretend we shared the same life philosophies and values. At the end, he tried to fraud me for money and I’d find out that he had multiple lawsuits against him for doing the same thing to both men and women.

My intuition knew right from the beginning, but I ignored it. The experience taught me a valuable lesson – listen to your gut.

However, it can be difficult to discern when it’s your intuition signaling you or simply fear whispering in your ear.  So how can you tell the difference?

The answer lies in  dopamine, the molecular source of our feelings. Through experience and the accumulation of knowledge, our “brain cells generate predictions about what will happen and then measures the difference between their expectations and actual results.” (Lehrer, Jonah, How We Decide). Our gut feelings are sudden, strong judgements that may seem to emerge from some obscure inner force, however they actually stem from an external cue – a facial expression, a tone of voice, an insincere smile, a visual inconsistency that is so fleeting your conscious mind isn’t even aware you noticed.  So while your subconscious brain is processing at a speed that your conscious cannot seem to comprehend, you are left with a flash of a feeling – that’s your intuition.

“Our gut feelings are sudden, strong judgements that may seem to emerge from some obscure inner force, however they actually stem from an external cue.” 

For example, you may meet someone and even though the person appears friendly by smiling and laughing, you automatically get the feeling that they are insincere. This is because your brain is processing and picking up signals so rapidly that your conscious can’t compute the exact reason why you have that feeling. In fact, researchers in London have discovered that our brains carry out a different process when we hear genuine laughter compared to fake laughter. When laughter is forced, it activates a part of the brain linked with deciphering emotions. When we see/hear genuine laughter, the part of the brain that lights up is linked with happiness and positive emotions. The study demonstrated that people can unconsciously identify the difference between a fake laugh and a sincere laugh with great accuracy.

“Intuition is really experience in disguise.”

Intuition is really experience in disguise. For me, as someone who studies social dynamics and body language, I have developed an expertise in reading people. I can trust that my intuition and assessment of someone is pretty accurate. Looking back at that first date, my subconscious likely picked up cues that he was lying, but since I could not understand where that “feeling” came from, I chose to ignore it. But for areas that I’m not an expert in, it’s possible that what I’m feeling is not a gut feeling, but fear. For example, if I’ve never tried surfing before, and I am overwhelmed with a feeling that something might go wrong, it’s likely fear overcoming  me, as I have no expertise or prior experience in the subject – my brain does not have the history of creating patterns around this particular activity to detect if something is slightly “off”.

Intuition should be treated as the first step (but not the only step) in solving a problem or deciding what to do. The more experience you have in a particular domain, the more reliable your intuition will be.

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