Listen to Your Intuition: It Could Save Your Life

fear Gavindebecker intuition

Protected By Intuition Security Systems

Then, I read The Gift of Fear, by Gavin de Becker. The book discusses the value of our human intuition in judging and protecting us from violence. Our non-conscious mind is capable of connecting the dots between various bits of information in our lives much, much faster than our conscious minds, and does so automatically, 24 hours a day. It is looking for things essential to our survival, and the topic of de Becker's book is how our intuition is always scanning for signs that we are in danger.

This is similar to the theories in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: sometimes our snap judgements, arrived to without conscious reasoning, are more accurate that those judgements arrived at in the usual way. This is exciting because it posits a very pragmatic, useful application of a concept normally considered totally impractical, if not simply imaginary.

The catch is that, when our intuition does pick up something we need to be worried about, it only provides us with the sensation that we need to do something, neglecting to provide the reasoning behind the assessment of danger. One poignant example in the book involved a man who walked into a convenience store, was immediately overcome by a sensation of visceral fear, and promptly left, only to find out that there was a shooting at that store minutes later.

The explanation, untangled later during an interview with de Becker, was that he had walked in and noticed a very slight change in the behavior of the clerk behind the counter. His intuition added that piece of information to everything else it knew about convenience stores, that part of town, the waiting car outside, the time of day, the statistics about shootings, and decided he was in danger. It didn't both explaining all this--he had no idea why he should be afraid--instead simply providing the danger signal.

He listened to it and it saved his life.

Homo Sapien, Now with BioChip 100 Billion-Core Processors

Our society tends to strongly discount knowledge arrived at in ways other than the obviously logical. Since the Enlightenment, we have developed a strong aversion to all knowledge non-scientific.

I think this puts us at a disadvantage because scientific, logical thinking proceeds in a linear fashion, and one thing that gives the human brain an advantage over most electronic computers is that it processes in parallel. The human brain operates like a web of mini-CPUs, each of which can run a small analysis on its own before passing the results down the line to the next level of processors. This allows it to arrive at conclusions much faster and to handle more information at a time than an electronic computer with one CPU, which can only make one decision at a time (even if it takes fractions of a second to do, it's still forced to do things in sequence. Multi-core CPUs get around this problem, as do a few other models of processing in computers).

(This is a very simplified explanation. I'm neither a cognitive scientist nor a computer scientist, so take this with a grain of salt.)

Since there are something like 100 trillion synapses and 100 billion neurons in the human brain, you can imagine the feats of analysis it is capable of: far more than you could consciously handle or assess at any time.

Intuition in Application

The only really valuable thing is intuition. - Albert Einstein

I had just finished turning a back flip, but was over-rotating and landed off balance on the trampoline. I scooted backwards, but instead of simply hopping to flat ground, I dove into a horribly lopsided cartwheel without really knowing why. I had the sensation of being about to run into something and was compelled to avoid it. I soon discovered that I was avoiding a toddler who had scrambled onto the trampoline while I was turning in the air. I had apparently sensed her on the trampoline with me, or maybe even saw her during the flip, when my conscious brain was busy making sure I didn't land on it. Her mother, terrified seconds ago as she watched her daughter crawl into the path of a falling trampolinist, was stunned and relieved as she watched me avoid her daughter.

Since reading The Gift of Fear and toying with instinctual knowledge, I've started listening more carefully to my intuition and have been able to benefit from the insight it provides, both in sudden emergencies like the trampoline incident and in social interactions where I can rely on it to read people. I've been more confident in my judgements of others and situations.

These experiences have convinced me that we have a huge untapped resource for helping us navigate our lives. The trick is to be able to hear the subtle impressions and signals being sent by our intuition and to express them appropriately. If we can do that, we gain a powerful ally that can help us in a variety of ways:

The Language of Intuition

De Becker gives a list of sensations our intuition uses to talk to us, ranging from nagging doubts right up to palpable fear. Here are some examples:

This week's Warrior Spirit exercises will focus on cultivating sensitivity to your own intuition and applying it to your life. To make sure you receive them, sign up for the e-mail newsletter.

Photo credit: CarbonNYC on Flickr