Intuition. Nonsense or reality?

15 May 2021

“That’s how it is with people. Nobody cares how it works as long as it works.”

Hearing the expression “female intuition” always brings me back to my teenage years, when I was really into magazines for girls. They always covered the most important topics for a growing woman: how to paint your nails, what to wear to make it easier for a prince on a unicorn to notice you, how to prepare yourself for motherhood and a life of a housewife, and why he is not calling you back. Thoughts like this helped us pass the time while we waited for the prince charming to appear in our lives and give us the purpose. Of course, like our mothers, we would just be destined to wash his pants and depend on his salary, but oh well it is a decent price to pay for happiness, at least for us, because we believed in this unrealistic post soviet dream.

I remember well, the days when I took a freshly printed Cool Girl magazine and spent some quality time in the park educating myself about the most important things in life. I was sipping lemonade in the sunshine and dreaming about becoming one of these popular girls with perfect hair, body, and boyfriend. Don’t think there was a single thought about grades in my brainwashed head. Nevertheless, I learned a lot of useful information from magazines: that white makes you look wider, and you can never wear it, that my face is heart-shaped and it is really important to know because without this information I will never find a perfect haircut that will make me so beautiful so that my prince just appears next to me.

Some of these thoughts got so deeply rooted in my head, and even though some of them are easy to get rid of, others still exist on the subconscious level and I have no idea what they are. I know though, that I am still not a big fan of wearing white, perhaps this is the example of how strong these connections are in our brain.

My favourite topics were love stories and the advice/help column, where other girls were asking questions that mattered the most to them: how to keep the prince interested in you, how to make sure no one threatens your relationship, all kinds of juicy stuff from relationships to making bracelets. Psychological tests were the other thing that I really liked, because they helped me understand all the depths of my soul: What do the guys you fall for tell you about your personality?

“You have a problem with authority, Mr. Anderson. You believe you are special, that somehow the rules do not apply to you. Obviously, you are mistaken.”
RHINEHEART, the matrix

Of course, this is me laughing about it, but back then it was my life. The girls in post soviet countries were being brainwashed every step of their way, and you simply had no other choices, and marrying someone from abroad was the best out of all possible scenarios. And no one cared that you are only 5 and haven’t even understood who you are let alone what marriage is.

Some magazines covered more mystical topics about tarot card reading, horoscopes, and women’s intuition. Yet somehow this still led to attracting a man of your dreams. I really enjoyed reading those too. I didn’t understand much about intuition but knew that women have a better one than men.

Since then I mastered the art of painting my nails (just about) and learned a few more female secrets (like Kon-Mari folding and decluttering technique, making soap, etc.) but never thought too much about intuition.

In the middle of a pandemic I changed my job and joined a learning and development company that creates personality profiles for employees of organisations that can afford this kind of thing. Their mission is to help people understand themselves and others. As a new recruit, I was offered to take the test myself. It turned out that my intuition is over the roof and higher than most people’s. High intuition is also connected with the magician archetype. It was my first week at work and I didn’t want to tell everyone straight off the bat that as much as I love typologies and think that they are really useful models for understanding yourself and others, I don’t really believe in these things. I was already once called Harry Potter, because of my glasses and now this test proved that I am a magician. 

And just like any other magician, who doesn’t know their true power yet, I started researching it and thinking about how this intuition shows in my behaviour. Yes, I did come up with a lot of useless and meaningless assignments for myself during the pandemic. But I will leave this for a different blog post.

My research

Directly from my head: 6th sense, magic, insight, unknown power to predict future, forecast, subconscious, powerful, almighty. I also had some memories from cinematography and literature: spiderman’s sense, ushu in Avatar, magicians and fortune tellers from fairytales, the force from star wars, some action movies like Indiana Jones, Matrix, and Neo’s ability to predict the actions of the matrix.

I stopped there and decided to check how far from the truth my thinking is. Before doing further research my assumption was: intuition is something that receives signals from the outside world that tell us what are the best possible actions to take in the current situation.

Turns out that what we are so used to calling intuition is based in the nucleus accumbens of our brain. This part of the brain is responsible for what we like, what we think is worth the investment, and decision making.

It is no longer news to anyone that our brain makes decisions before we consciously acknowledge them (Libet’s experiment and many more since then including Knutsen and his experiment with crowdfunding projects).

Brian Knutsen studied pain, pleasure, and decision-making centers, and in one of his experiments, he learned that our brain is able to predict (on the subconscious level) which charity project will get the funding. Participants were shown short descriptions of 36 charity projects and in seconds they knew on the level of sensations which project will get the funding. It is interesting that participant’s conscious decisions were very different from the reaction of their brain.

Marcus Raichle discovered the default mode network, which is active when we don’t think about anything specific when our mind wanders. DMN analyzes a lot of different options and chooses the one that then moves into consciousness. 

Our brain makes decisions before we consciously realise them. These intuitive reactions of our brain can be more precise than consciously considered decisions. It happens because the capacity of our consciousness is limited and it can’t hold as many intellectual objects as our brain. This doesn’t mean that we should come running at the first call of our brain’s true desires or impulses. Learning to consciously notice the signals our brain sends us through sensations in our body can help us understand our true motivations and needs. This first impulse/reaction of our brain to the outside world stimuli is our intuition. This is it.

Intuition is our subconscious thinking process that happens behind the scenes. We can only see the result of our cognitive activity – something that gets on the stage, but we don’t see all the processes behind the scene to make it happen. How effective this system depends on your past experiences in the area of interest. If we know the topic very well, then we can rely on our intuition when making a decision. If you manage to turn this expert intuition into an automated behaviour/habit you can save a lot of energy. The only problem is when we use the same process to make a decision in an area we don’t know very well we will be affected by cognitive biases. And we won’t even notice.

The real world is constantly changing, and we need to use rational and slow (System 2, according to Kahneman) thinking in areas we don’t know very well. It is important to recognise the intuitive body reaction, and then slowly and rationally check how accurate your initial assumption was.

How to find your intuition?

Our intuition communicates with us through our bodies using sensations, images, and premonitions. This mechanism helped us survive and adapt to our environment. Unfortunately, nowadays in a world full of useless and endless stimuli we are overloaded with information. This in its turn promotes emotional numbness and makes it harder to stay in tune with your body and hear your intuition.

The purpose of our brain’s salience network is to read the signals from the outside world and react to them, also to monitor our inner sensations and signals from our bodies. Thanks to this network we can recognise the intuitive reactions of our brain. The way our intuition talks to us depends on our culture, genetics, and our dominant channel of perception (audio, video, or kinesthetic).

It happens more and more often when the outside stimuli make it impossible for us to notice the inner signals that our body sends us. It is becoming more normal when you become so desensitised, that you don’t notice that you are tired or upset. I am one of these people.

I am also interested in the link between intuition and Kahneman’s fast thinking (System 1). Daniel Kahneman and his friend and colleague Amos Tversky researched cognitive biases and irrationality in making decisions and were awarded a Nobel Prize for “using psychological methods in economic studies, precisely during the studies of judgment and decision making in conditions of uncertainty”.

System 1 is responsible for intuitive and fast thinking (just like an intuitive response), which makes us feel good because it is easy. This system operates heuristics and walks the usual intuitive path, which makes it prone to cognitive biases.

System 2 is responsible for rational, deliberate, slow, rule-based thinking that needs a lot of energy and cognitive effort to be able to operate. When we are using this system we naturally slow down, we can’t combine this activity with anything else.

It is amusing that System 2 is very lazy and the only thing that can make it work is a contradiction (a glitch in the matrix), a disconnect between information received from the outside world and the way we logically explain it to ourselves. You have probably experienced it when you stayed in the hotel and it messes up your normal routine, everything takes longer because you have to find the switch, the sink, etc. Preparing to go to bed normally consists of very well-rehearsed behaviours we can do on auto-pilot. However, when the environment changes our brain needs more time to adjust to the change.

We fall under the affect heuristic when we are driven by our emotions when making a decision. We ask ourselves easy questions like “Do I like it? Or How strongly do I feel about it?”.

It works because we replace a complicated question (What do we THINK about it?) we should have asked ourselves with an easier one  (How do we FEEL about it?). It is worth noting that people who don’t listen to their emotions (don’t hear their fear) before making a decision can also be a disadvantage.

This heuristic, based on the work of System 1, creates a simple world and makes our life easier, makes an impression that it is easy to make decisions, which is far from the truth.


To conclude, I am not a wizard (for those who didn’t detect that I was sarcastic) and I have no superpower that allows me to predict the future. I also can’t read the intuitive signals my brain sends me through my body. What a screw-up. Or maybe it doesn’t matter because we are all like this, victims of information overload and not Jedi. This is why I am going to go and do something useful like cooking dinner for my boyfriend.


When Brain Beats Behavior: Neuroforecasting Crowdfunding Outcomes
Alexander Genevsky, Carolyn Yoon and Brian Knutson, Journal of Neuroscience 6 September 2017

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