4 Ways Intuition Rules Your Brain

Love at first sight. A “sixth sense.” That feeling in the pit of your stomach that something’s not quite right. Our brains guide our actions, but as it turns out, you make a lot of decisions that you’re not even aware of making. That split-second feeling in your gut that overrules your logical thinking skills – that’s intuition.

But intuition doesn’t happen in your gut. The impulse is prompted by multiple parts of the brain, driven by a mental system called the “adaptive unconscious.” So why does intuition work the way it does? Next week’s episode of Brain Games breaks down how intuition sneakily controls our decision-making processes, for better or for worse.


Here are 4 quick lessons that explain the brain’s capacity for intuition:

1. Intuition kicks our brains into the fast lane.

Ancient thinkers were clued into the existence of intuition; Aristotle interpreted the decision-making impulse to be a form of wisdom. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that science caught up. Regarded as the “father of American psychology,” scientist William James proposed the idea that our brains employ two different processes for decision-making: one slow and deliberate, and the other split-second.

James’ idea is known today as the dual-process model of cognition— a fancy term that means our brain has two speeds at which it makes decisions. There’s the slow lane, the thorough, deliberate reasoning mode that you’d employ to solve a math problem, for instance. And then there’s the fast lane, your brain’s automatic decision-making system that relies on mental shortcuts to make a decision at high speeds, which you’d use when you merge lanes. 


2. There’s a reason why you don’t notice the hard work your intuition puts in: it’s faster than your conscious mind. 

Some decisions you make intuitively you only notice after the fact – and some you don’t even notice at all. Your intuition feels like it comes out of nowhere because many of our responses made with intuition pass by unnoticed, happening  at a much higher speed than your conscious mind. When you’re looking at your phone at a crosswalk, you maybe weren’t alert to your body’s intuitive impulse that kept you from crossing the street in front of a speeding car. While your body and mind are distracted with other things, intuition gives us a decision-making shortcut.

Intuitive decisions may feel like they happen on-the-spot, but our brains work differently than that. Researchers, after studying brain scans of experimental subjects making choices, found that people will make an intuitive decision about seven seconds before they are even aware of the choice.

3. Your intuition works like your phone’s auto-correct.

So how exactly does your intuition make these decisions while bypassing your normal thinking process? The adaptive unconscious uses an ingenious trick to simplify your brain’s decision-making process, referring back to previous information stored in the brain as a mental shortcut.

Think of this trick like the auto-correct on your phone, which makes educated guesses as to what you’re trying to say by pairing the words you’re typing with those already stored in its dictionary, taking incoming data and looking for similarities within its memory system. Similarly, when making intuitive decisions, your brain searches your memories and recalls hardwired danger signals in your amygdala, using these shortcuts to learn from past mistakes and make an improved decision.


4. Your intuition can lead you astray.

Unfortunately, these split-second decisions aren’t always the wisest ones. For all the merits of the adaptive unconscious, it really likes to make decisions and bypass the brain’s traditional thinking processes, even if the brain doesn’t actually have the correct information to base those decisions upon. For example, our primitive instincts still dictate some of our thinking, causing humans to generally be afraid of snakes, their appearance triggering a deep-set alarm in our amygdala.

Additionally, we can convince ourselves that our instincts are faulty – even when, in reality, they’re correct. Our biases also hold sway over our decision-making processes. According to a 2011 study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, our adaptive unconscious and conscious thinking processes tend to use cherry-picked information to reinforce each other. As a result, our intuition falls in line with our consciously held beliefs, and vice-versa.

Want more mind-foolery? Don’t miss the next Brain Games on Monday at 9P.