Intuition

One day, I was standing in front of my grilled-cheese sandwich, staring uselessly at the top side which I didnít care about. (You can see the side of the sandwich that isn't cooking, because itís facing upwards. Meanwhile, the cooking side is face-down in the frying pan, where you can't see it.) I could either bore myself to death by constantly checking the bottom of the sandwich, or I could let it cook but then risk burning it.

That day, however, I unexpectedly had a visual image of turning my sandwich over and seeing the underside a golden brown. I turned my sandwich over, and it was a golden brown. I had had an intuition that my sandwich was cooked, and I was right! I was amazed.

Explanation?

If you believe in intuition, you probably accept this story. If you don't believe in intuition you are probably thinking, "How do you know that's an intuition? That's not good evidence for intuition. Maybe it was just dumb luck."

I am sympathetic to this cynical point of view. I don't trust things unless I see good evidence for them. But I normally don't engage in imagination or wishful thinking about my cooking. So it was very unusual just to have that thought. This image also felt like real knowledge, not imagination or wishful thinking. Finally, that day heralded a new ability to somehow intuit when my grilled-cheese sandwiches were cooked. I checked my grilled-cheese sandwiches much less often, yet I stopped burning them.

If there was no way to know that my grilled-cheese sandwich was cooked, then I would have to concede that my "intuition" was dumb luck. I don't believe in magic. And at the time, I was clueless how I could know my sandwich was cooked. That's why my intuition seemed so amazing.

But after considerable effort and attention, I discovered a cue. Before the grilled-cheese sandwich is fully cooked, bubbles of butter became visible around the edge of the sandwich. When these bubbles disappear, the grilled-cheese sandwich is cooked (or almost cooked).

When I told my classes this story, I discovered several other potential cues: (1) The sandwich might make a different sound when it is cooked (because the bubbles of butter have disappeared); (2) the sandwich might smell different when it is cooked; (3) an uncooked sandwich tends to stick on the pan as you shake the pan; a cooked sandwich will slide. (If you want to use these cues for cooking your own grilled-cheese sandwich, be warned that they vary depending on the type of bread, type of pan, and amount of butter.)

Which of these cues did I use to intuit that my grilled-cheese sandwich was cooked? I think it was the bubbles around the edge, because that was the cue I discovered myself. But I don't know, and I don't have any way of knowing.

Thoughts from "Nowhere"

This was my experience: A thought (my sandwich was cooked) just appeared in my consciousness. I had no awareness of the process of producing the thought -- I was conscious of just the final thought.

If the thought wasn't produced by my consciousness, it had to have been produced by my unconscious. Maybe that unconscious part of my brain was lucky, but it seemed to know what it was doing -- the thought felt like knowledge, it proved correct, and listening to my unconscious substantially improved by subsequent ability to cook grilled-cheese sandwiches.

The Amazing Intuition (...Not!)

Whenever I teach about intuition, I do this class demonstration. First, I define an intution as "a thought that just appears in your brain. You don't know what produced the thought."

Then I find one brave volunteer. I explain that the volunteer should close his/her eyes and report any intuitions that occur between when I say "start" and when I say "stop". Then, with the volunteer's eyes closed, I say "start, bag, stop."

Did the volunteer have any thoughts appear in consciousness? Yes, the volunteer heard the word "bag." No doubt an amazing intuition.

I ask the volunteer how he/she knew it was the word "bag". The volunteer talks about the "b" sound and the "a" sound. But, how did the volunteer know it was an 'a" sound? The volunteer just did. It sounded like an "a". Yes, I say, of course, but what does an "a" actually sound like?

No volunteer ever knows how the "a" sound is recognized. The reality is, some frequencies of sound are enhanced by the shape of the mouth and some are dampened. The enhanced frequencies are called "formants." The "a" sound is probably recognized by the formants, though the story is not quite as simple as that. But of course my volunteer has no idea what a formant is and no idea of how the "a" sound is recognized. The recognition of 'a' occurs unconsciously, and consciousness has no awareness of the process and no ability to introspect into the process.

The story is even more complicated for the "b" and "g" sounds. At least there is some duration when the "a" sound exists; it is not clear that there is any pure "b" or "g" sound. Again, formants are relevant, but the formants of "b" begin changing to the "a" sound as soon as you start pronouncing "bag."

More Unamazing Intuitions

Eventually, my poor volunteer will mention that it was me saying "bag". More trouble for my volunteer -- how does the volunteer know it was me? Well, the volunteer recognized my voice. But how does the volunteer -- or anyone for that matter -- recognize voices as belonging to one person versus another? The answer presumably involves other formants, which the volunteer doesn't consciously know about.

Eventually the poor volunteer mentions that the voice was coming from my direction. That brings up another round of questioning -- how did the volunteer know where the voice was coming from?

There are three cues for voice recogition. One is that a sound will arrive at one ear before the other, depending on its location to the left or right. The second is that the sound will be louder in one ear than the other, again depending on the extent to which the sound is coming from the left or right. Some people know about thes two cues, though no one can use them consciously.

Finally, when a sound comes into your ear, it bounces around the outer ear, reflected by the ridges and valleys in your ear – those ears sticking out of your head are not there just to help you look cute, they also help you localize sounds. Depending on where the sound comes from, you get different echoes. For whatever reason, people don't know about this cue, though everyone uses it. (It is the only way to know if a sound is coming from in front, back, above, or below you.)

Perceptions: Thoughts from "Nowhere"

If you pay attention to your conscious experience during perception, you can clearly see that none of it occurs consciously. But the study of perception shows that a lot is going on. Putting these two together:

There is a huge amount of unconscious processing during perception

Then, as you can easily observe in your own thinking:

Only the final result of this processing becomes conscious

It is as if the unconscious is a very hard working employee who does a lot of calculations, and when it is done, presents the results of this processing to consciousness.

Of course, if you were a boss and your employee gave you results, you could ask the employee how the results were produced. Your consciousness can try asking your unconscious how it produced the perception, but it won't get any answer. Your unconscious presents only the results of its processing to consciousness.

Intuitions and Perceptions

There is not much difference between a perception and an intuition. Both appear in consciousness without any warning. For both, consciousness has no access to the process of producing the thought.

The only different is this. The perception doesn't seem mysterious until you think about it. The intuition seems very mysterious until you think about it.

For example, once one of my friends told me about this "intuition". His girlfriend called him on the phone, all she said to him was "hello", and he knew she had just had an affair with someone. He described it as amazing.

I was not so amazed. His girlfriend had a wide choice of words to say to him. More importantly, there are many ways to say hello, all communicating different attitudes and emotions. It is not surprising to me that he could tell a lot from her greeting. But most people don't know about these cues, and they aren't even consciously aware of their existence. So a thought based on these cues can seem like an amazing intuition, when really it is just the unconscious perceptual system doing its normal thing.

Conclusion

The intuition is simply a product of how the brain works. An unconscious system produces a conclusion, and all that becomes conscious is the conclusion. When the conclusion seems mysterious, we call it an intuition.

If you want to be skeptical and reserve judgment about what I am presenting, that's fine. But skepticism becomes inappropriate when you are skeptical of anything new and not skeptical about anything old. There is no evidence to support the idea that all thinking is conscious, or could be conscious, or that unconscious thinking is like conscious thinking in any way. There is plenty of evidence to show that those positions are wrong. If you believe that there is no unconscious, or that the unconscious is like consciousness, you are not being skeptical, you are uncritically accepting your assumptions.