Universal Ethics > Thought of the Month > August 2019

Use of Intuition

It makes sense to pay attention to your intuition. Here's why...

There is an incredible amount of processing that goes on in the human mind, of which people are not consciously aware. This has become abundantly apparent in recent years as we have begun to discover how complicated the thinking process is.

The closest machine we have to compare against the brain and mind is a computer with its software. The earliest computers weren't much more than glorified calculators. But they could do up to a million calculations per second, which was astounding at the time (though slow compared to modern computers).

Math is one of the hardest things for a human to do. So when a basic computer can do millions of calculations per second, how hard could it be to build machines that would be "intelligent"?

But as things have turned out, the simplest things that humans do have turned out to be the most complicated. To us, many things seem simple. To pick up a jar from the table, we just reach and do it. We turn to look at the room, and there it is. We recognize every object, and correctly identify the other people in the room based on subtle differences in the shape of their faces.

Computer programming has been my profession for much of my life, and so I know something about the complexity of trying to program those kinds of operations. Pattern recognition, voice recognition, movement: those are challenges that computer scientists have worked on for decades, and finally sucessful means have been developed.

The point is, when your brain does those same things, it may seem simple to you, but in reality there is an enormous amount of complex processing that is occurring in your brain.

By contrast, math seems hard because your brain wasn't designed specifically to do it. In order to do math, you have to go through learning and then execute the learned procedure at a conscious level. The fact that humans do math so slowly attests to the large amount of overhead that the learning and consciousness elements must have within the mind.

So now you begin to realize that most of your thinking is happening "below the surface", in your subconscious. You may direct a "train of thought" consciously, but most of what is happening is automatic and it isn't apparent to you at all.

I recall a personal experience in which I woke up one night, in the middle of a dream where I had imagined that I had left the door unlocked. Normally I locked it in the evening. I got up to check, and sure enough, the door was unlocked. Because I lived alone at that time, it was unlocked because I had left it that way--evidently I was preoccupied and had not carried out my normal habit. But the point is this: my subconscious (the dream) revealed to me what my consciousness had originally neglected.

Intuitions of this sort cannot be planned; they just happen. But when something like this does happen, it would be unfortuante to arbitrarily throw it away.

I would suggest that you treat such ideas the same way you treat the ideas that pop-up when you are in a "brainstorming" session with other people. In brainstorming, you collect the ideas first to get as many as you can without inhibiting thought, and then you evaluate them later.

An intuition may or may not be right, and it may or may not be useful, but it might spur additional thought that can lead you to a solution.

One thing that you have to be careful of is unwarranted trust in your intuition. People do make mistakes on intuition. In ancient times it seemed natural to believe that the earth was flat, or that our world was the center of the universe. But as the facts are discovered it is wise to pay attention to the evidence. You may well discover that your intuition will change too as you gain more understanding!

My recommendation, when you have an intuition related to some difficult decision, is that you test the intuition. Do not ignore it, because it could be useful. Instead, check it out. What evidence can you get to either confirm or disconfirm the idea? Find out what you can, and if the intuition still seems reasonable, then act on it.

Also I would caution you not to confuse intuition and emotion, the latter of which can give rise to wishful thinking. One writer on the subject of intuition explains the difference, and how to avoid confusing them:

From Creativity in Business by Michael Ray and Rochell Myers...

The following items are taken from Chapter 15, "Practical Intuition"

Here's another quote cited from Ray & Myers, as related to them by Claude Rosenberg:

"A very learned man said to me once, 'The most serious thing is to get stuck at the Y in the road. You don't know which way to go, and you stay at the 'Y'. I think that's really true. It has to do with creativity and change. You come to the Y in the road and you think for a minute. If your instinct doesn't tell you which way to go, don't stay there and muddle muddle muddle. Think it through, but then you've got to go down one of the forks. And once you go down that fork, you will find that you've gone the "wrong" way or the "right" way and you might come back, but that's the learning experience."

- Arthur de Leyssac, August 2019

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