The Science Behind Intuition (And How To Get In Tune With It)

Here's why adding intuition to your decision-making tool belt can help you navigate this crazy world more effectively.

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At some point or another, whether we’re sharply aware or completely oblivious, most of us have an experience where a persistent inner dialogue convinces us to act in one way or another.

Maybe you’ve found yourself in a peculiar situation that just doesn’t “feel right,” so you extricate yourself accordingly only to discover shortly thereafter that stepping away was the best decision you could have made. Or perhaps you’ve just got this funny feeling that you ought to call someone close to you right that instant, and when that person picks up the phone on the other side you’re able to help them in a monumental way.

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Whatever the case, it’s our intuition—a sixth sense, if you will—that we have to thank for such events. And while it’s easy to label intuition as hippy-dippy nonsense, the truth is that it’s a powerful, evolutionary tool with some real science to back it up.

“When we are operating according to our calendars … we are following what has already been put in place for us. …We are on autopilot, but not really ‘breathing.’”

—Ariane Machin, PhD

With the help of Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, a renowned clinical and consulting psychotherapist, and Ariane Machin, PhD, a psychologist and life coach, we’re helping you figure out how to better tune into your intuition so you can use it to your advantage in the years to come.

What, exactly, is intuition?

Like anything associated with feelings or emotions, the term “intuition” can feel a little nebulous. For that reason, definitions and experiences vary slightly from person to person.

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“I would describe intuition as a strong, instantaneous reaction that we might experience in different types of situations,” says Machin. “This sensation acts as our guide and can be experienced differently for everyone. Some people may describe it as a ‘gut feeling,’ while others may actually get a visualization about what they need to do, while others may experience this as a physical reaction somewhere in their body.”

Universally, though, Machin says that intuition cannot be planned. Rather, it comes in unexpected moments and ought to be considered a source of inner wisdom. Hokemeyer agrees, referring to it as a “constellation of instructional signs we perceive as we’re racing down the highway of life.”

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You’re probably pretty familiar with the phrase “women’s intuition,” which may lead you to wonder if women are naturally more equipped and in tune with this phenomenon.

“There is absolutely merit to a woman’s intuition,” says Hokemeyer. “Empirically, woman have been shown to have brain networks that are physically more robust than men’s, which enhance their ability to intuit the world around them. From an evolutionary standpoint, a woman’s heightened intuition serves the propagation of our species. Through a heightened intuition, a woman is more in tune to the needs of her children, her mate, and her social support system.”

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In a 2017 study published by Molecular Psychiatry, researchers conducted a large-scale study that investigated the “genetic architecture of cognitive empathy.” The premise was simple: It asked 90,000 people to look into photographs of other people’s eyes in order to determine their mood. Though intuition certainly encompasses more than just mood-reading, this was a concrete way to test it across a spectrum of ethnicities.

The results were fascinating: They found that women, no matter the ethnicity, consistently outperformed men, lending credence to the concept of “women’s intuition.”

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All that said, men do have intuition as well, and they’re fully capable of tuning into it.

“Though more women may report being more in tune with their intuition than men, it doesn’t mean that men can’t develop and use their intuition,” notes Machin. “More women, however, may use this in a daily basis as a source for ‘knowing’ and may be more likely to listen and attend to the whispers that it may be trying to tell us.”

Ways Your Intuition Speaks To You

Hokemeyer says that our intuition is something that speaks very loudly and clearly to us, but in the same way we drown out noise at a coffee shop or street traffic getting from point A to B, it’s easy to tune it out. That said, if you know the signs and feelings to look for, you’ll be able to better tune into yours.

You may experience intuition…

Physically: Machin notes that sometimes we may experience intuition in a very physical way. “The person may get a stomach ache or feel a wave of energy going through their body,” she explains.

Visually: “Others may experience a visualization of what they need to do or what needs to happen,” says Machin. This may come in a flash—maybe a repeated vision or a dream.

Emotionally: A pointed instinct or pull that’s hard to shake is perhaps one of the most common ways our intuition speaks to us. Some of us are very good at listening, but many of us are very good at turning the volume down to zero.

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“We often experience a disconnect between what we ‘should’ feel, think, or do, and what we actually feel,” explains Hokeymeyer. “A classic example is in the reel of romantic relationships. On paper, the guy or gal is great, but in the dynamic discourse of our interactions with them, the relationship is tortured.”

Machin adds, “I have also had times where I experienced a negative energy when I imagined doing something, and I used this information to guide me in whatever I was doing. This occurs at least weekly, and I try to be as open to my intuition as possible because I value the information it is providing me.”

Following Your Intuition

This leads us to a very important discussion: Just how important is following your intuition? Further, are there times when you ought to adhere to something else more concrete, such as thoughtful reasoning or empirical data? And is it possible to hone your intuition so it’s more reliable?

“I believe following your intuition allows us to get out of our overly scheduled and rigid lives and allows us to open up to other possibilities,” says Machin. “When we are operating according to our calendars, which isn’t innately a ‘bad’ thing, we are following what has already been put in place for us. Sometimes we are missing out in these situations. We are on autopilot, but not really ‘breathing.’ Listening to our intuition helps guide us for what we need to do. Sometimes this might be what’s in our calendar, and sometimes it’s not.”

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Listening to our intuition is also important when it might involve safety situations, she adds. For example, in situations when we feel like we need to make a certain turn on a road, pick up the phone and make a call, or not walk inside of the house, these “gut feelings” are important to listen to.

For situations that are less imminent or perhaps carry much more weight over the long term, such as starting a business, ending a relationship, or taking a new job, we ought to “follow our intuition” in a more thoughtful manner.

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Amy Baylor, PhD, the program director for the National Science Foundation, penned a paper—“A U-Shaped Model for the Development of Intuition by Level of Expertise”—for the New Ideas in Psychology journal. In this paper—which has been cited and referenced repeatedly since being published in 2001—Baylor carefully outlined two primary types of intuition: mature and immature.

“Immature intuition is most available when an individual is a novice in a given knowledge domain, where his/her analytical knowledge of the subject does not interfere with the ability to make novel insights,” she wrote. “Mature intuition is more rare and is most available when an individual is more of an expert in the subject area with well-developed relevant knowledge structures.”

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Things get a little complicated, but what Baylor essentially said is that while the intuition is experienced in a relatively similar manner by everyone, how we interpret and respond to our intuition depends on our previous experience within a particular area. This is true whether we’re talking technical decisions, relationships, or business. Ultimately, the more experience we have in a particular situation—and the more information we can pull into the equation—the more holistically we can make a good decision.

The lesson here isn’t that you necessarily have to be an expert at something, but rather that you ought to use your intuition to guide you into doing more thinking and more research before making a quick, reactive decision.

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Wary of a relationship and feel an undercurrent that’s telling you to “get out now?” Your intuition could be spot-on, but you might also have issues with commitment that are misguiding you. Determined to start that business after seeing a visualization of dollar signs next to a storefront? That’s fantastic, but make sure you jump into your entrepreneurial dreams with two feet firmly planted in a pile of research.

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Intuition is a tool—and a very important one that has repeatedly been proven effective for centuries—but you ought to utilize the other tools in your tool belt, as well. Think of it this way: a hammer definitely comes in handy when you’re hanging a new picture, but you wouldn’t toss your screwdriver or wrench aside because of this, would you?

In the end, we should be open to accessing our intuition, paying attention to it, and listening to what it might be telling us. Just as important, though, is making sure our perception system is clean, that we’re drawing from previous experience and research, and that our decisions are fully thought out.

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