Wednesday, September 3, 2008

    When to trust your intuition

    "Trust your intuition" is what we are often told. We just like intuition. We would like to hear that our intuitive feelings know the right answer for everything. It has something mysterious that makes it attractive. The truth is, sometimes your intuition is right, other times it's are wrong. But why? There is a lot of confusion about these feelings, as many people try to attribute to our intuition some kind of magic hocus pokus. Intuition is a product of your subconscious brain. Your subconsciousness registers much more inputs and in a different way than your consciousness. It will relate what you see, with what you hear, feel, smell and taste with what you do and what happened before and after. And all these impressions will again be related to previous experiences in life. So much happens in your brain! It will process the information, find patterns, learn from feedback and try to optimize the responses. For instance, nobody knows how they learned to walk, play tennis or ride a bike, you just learn it without knowing exactly how. When your conscious brain tries to make a decision, your subconsciousness will give his meaning through intuitive feelings or guts.

    The subconscious brain is incredibly powerful, but the problem is that it will give a judgment about situations no matter if he made it based on relevant facts or not. That is why the next principle is useful:

    Principle one:

    The subconscious brain, powerful as it is, is just another mechanism in our body. It follows the laws of nature.

    Although many people don't want to believe this, accepting this reality will help us to distinguish between the things that it can know and the things it can't. Some conclusions we may draw from this first principle are:

    -Your intuition is not some kind of magical device that tells you what to do nor a secret communication channel through which your ancestors or divine power advise you. If they wanted to, wouldn't it be easier just to directly talk to you?
    -Your intuition can only be worthily if your subconscious brain could have had access to enough information to know the right answer. For instance, no matter how much your intuition tells you that the number 340398 is going to win the lottery, it just can not know.

    If first principle delimits the situations in which our intuition can be useful, the second principle allows us to tell in what kind of situations intuition may be particularly useful.

    Principle two:
    The subconscious brain and the intuitive feelings we have are a product of our evolution.
    Conclusions that can be drawn from it:

    -Our intuition is adapted to the type of situations our ancestors we were presented with in the past. Since our brain hasn't changed much since in the last 50.000 year but our environment has, the analysis of the subconscious brain may be wrong for these new situations.
    -There are some cases for which know our ancestors where clearly adapted. Much before language existed, basic forms of communication existed though body language and facial expressions. The way to interpret these messages is hardwired in our brain.
    -Path finding was another task at which we where good at, it is estimated that some of the hominids could remember the location of every water resource in more than 50000 km2.
    -We are also good at pattern recognition. Studies have shown that when presented with sequences , people can guess the next element of the sequence without consciously knowing what the pattern is. This means our subconsciousness detects patterns faster than our consciousness.

    We can establish a list of some example situations in which our intuition may be useful and when it is useless:


    -Trying to find the way somewhere you have been before.
    -Detecting lies (information from nonverbal communication).
    -When you feel you forgot something.
    -When you have a the feeling something is wrong with our car.

    Useless: (If you think your feelings were often right, are you sure it wasn't confirmation bias?)

    - Trying to guess who is calling you.
    - Having a feeling about who will be the next president of the United States (no, really).
    - Guessing the next number that will show up on a dice.
    - When you feel that something bad happened to someone you care about.
    - When you simply know that a certain football team is going to win tomorrow's match.
    - The cases you feel something happened because it was destiny.
    - When get at some place and have the feeling something bad happened there.
    - When you have a feeling about the direction the stock market will take.

    There are also many cases in which it is not clear:

    - Guessing the where a gas station may be in a city you have never been. (You may not know anything about that city, but gas stations can be located at similar places in different cities).
    - When you think to know someone's personality from their looks. (Cultural influences and prejudices mix with nonverbal communication).
    - When you think to know what someone is going to say next.
    - When you think to know what your partner is going to cook.

    There is no ultimate way of knowing when to trust your intuition and when not to, but I really believe the principles can help to avoid basing your decisions on, lets be clear, useless bullshit.

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