The Value and Limits of Intuition

 “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.” — Albert Einstein

This is the fourth post I am writing to share the notes I made on a 4-day Field & Field course that I recently attended in the Cotswolds, UK. The title of the course was Exploring the Divided Brain. Coming to Your Senses and the keynote speaker for all four days was Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

For further background information to this post and the course, see the following previous posts and the page on this blog devoted to The Divided Brain and Iain McGilchrist’s work.

The Value and Limits of Intuition (NB these are my notes, based on my hearing, and my interpretation)

Intuitions often get a ‘bad rap’ from psychologists. We don’t know when we are intuiting and intuitions can be a source of error. Sometimes they are wrong and we can be deceived by them, but often they are not. Intuitions process large amounts of information in a short time. Most of what we do we are not conscious of. For these reasons, Iain started this talk by telling us that we should not give up on intuitions.

He then went on to discuss intuitions in terms of

  • instincts,
  • prejudices,
  • knee-jerk reactions,
  • gut feelings, and
  • embodied skills.


Instincts are fascinating. Do humans have them? Yes they do.  Iain referred to the work of William James, who believed that certain instincts are essential for human survival, e.g. fear, anger and love.

At the core of James’ theory of psychology, as defined in The Principles of Psychology (1890), was a system of “instincts”. James wrote that humans had many instincts, even more than other animals. These instincts, he said, could be overridden by experience and by each other, as many of the instincts were actually in conflict with each other. In the 1920s, however, psychology turned away from evolutionary theory and embraced radical behaviorism.

Instincts cover a lot of behaviour in all animals. For example, animals instinctively know what to eat, or how to fly and how to mate, including ‘on the wing’. The instinct to imitate is so important and explains how we learn so much. Children instinctively imitate other human beings. Learning begins at 45 minutes of life and babies respond to a smiling face within 48 hours. In his book (p.253) Iain writes:

The overwhelming importance of mimesis points to the conclusion that we had better select good models to imitate, because as a species, not only as individuals, we will become what we imitate. We will pass down the behaviours we have learnt to imitate by epigenetic mechanisms, and for this reason William James, in an inversion of the popular prejudice, saw the human species as having a larger array of apparently instinctual behaviours than any other.

But instincts are not for once and all. They are evolutionary. We can inherit them from our ancestors. Fear of a smell can be passed down through several generations. Physical gestures can be inherited. Anecdotal evidence suggests that transplant patients can inherit characteristics of donors, such as a love or hate of jazz. All this relates to epigenetic inheritance, the idea that inheritance does not only happen through the DNA code that passes from parent to offspring, but also by means of a parent’s experiences.

Rupert Sheldrake’s work on morphic fields and collective memory may also be relevant here, although it is worth noting that his ideas were considered so radical when first posited that his Ted Talk was, at the time, banned, but has since been reinstated. Iain also referenced Jungian archetypes, but both Sheldrake and Jung were only mentioned in passing and Iain concluded that we can’t say where all this is happening in terms of the left and right hemisphere’s of the brain, nor indeed whether there is any hemisphere relevance.


Prejudices are pre-judgements (forming an opinion before coming aware of the relevant facts) and are inevitable. Of course we make pre-judgements, but this is not the same as bias. Bias is the action of supporting or opposing a particular person or thing in an unfair way, because of allowing personal opinions to influence judgement. Prejudice does not necessarily lead to bias. By being aware of prejudice we can avoid bias. Most people ignore their prejudices, but information can override prejudice. For example, we make judgements on people’s faces within a tenth of a second, but we get better at judging faces with experience. The left hemisphere of the brain is more prone to bias than the right hemisphere. It tends to put things in categories, whereas the right hemisphere is important for pattern recognition.

Knee-jerk reactions, heuristics and rules of thumb

As nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman discussed in his international best seller, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, most of the time we do things ‘quick and dirty’ and make fast decisions, but when we need to, we slow down. In his book Kahneman discusses whether we need to slow down to avoid the errors that result from fast thinking, which he describes as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions and the planning fallacy. At the beginning of his book (p.10) he writes judgment heuristics “are quite useful, but sometimes lead to sever and systematic errors.” In another section of his book, Chapter 21, Kahneman discusses the accuracy of algorithmic formulas versus intuitions and calls into question the consistency of judgements made by professionals such as radiologists, auditors, pathologists, psychologists and organisational managers. For example, on p. 225 of his book he writes: Experienced radiologists who evaluate chest X-rays as “normal” or “abnormal” contradict themselves 20% of the time when they see the same picture on separate occasions.

In his talk, Iain talked of knee-jerk reactions, heuristics and rules of thumb more favourably than Kahneman, saying that intuitions are useful the majority of the time and that heuristics can be surprisingly useful. He illustrated this with the example of how ant colonies are built on the basis of random choices, but acknowledged that heuristics can lead to bias.

Gut feeling

In this part of the talk, Iain referenced Gerd Gigerenzer, Peter Struck an Malcolm Gladwell. In his book Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious, Gigerenzer explains why gut feelings are so often right and can serve us better than reflection and reason. Sometimes less is more, and heuristics can make more accurate decisions with less effort. Peter Struck in his book Divination and Human Nature: A Cognitive History of Intuition in Classical Antiquity discusses how ancient philosophers ‘produced subtle studies into what was an odd but observable fact–that humans could sometimes have uncanny insights–and their work signifies an early chapter in the cognitive history of intuition. And Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink. The Power of Thinking without Thinking explores the phenomenon of ‘blink’, showing how a snap judgement can be far more effective than a cautious decision. By trusting your instincts, he reveals, you’ll never think about thinking in the same way again.

Iain told us that many gut feelings arise in social situations. An important element is to make quick decisions. This happens in the right hemisphere of the brain, the deep, ancient, emotional part of the brain, where decisions are made on the basis of empathy, intuition and morality, rather than utility. Gut feelings can take a long time to come to consciousness.

Embodied skills

Finally, in discussing embodied skills, Iain referenced the work of Dreyfus and Dreyfus. In their book Mind over Machine: The Power of Human Intuition and Expertise in the Era of the Computer, Dreyfus and Dreyfus develop a 5-stage model of how expertise develops. Novices start by learning the rules and sticking to these rules. Gradually they develop an appreciation of context and move through stages of competence, proficiency and expertise, finally reaching mastery. It is in the final two stages that intuition comes into play and the learner can see patterns and can make connections between different aspects of the work. Pattern recognition is an important element in becoming an expert. In these later stages, most the time we are not deliberating but doing things unconsciously.

Functioning at this unconscious level of expertise can lead to fast, unconscious decision-making, such as the counter-intuitive idea of literally ‘fighting fire with fire’, i.e. in the case of the fireman who in the face of an oncoming forest fire lit a ring of fire around himself, lay down in the burned area, and lived to tell the tale. Intuitions can also be guided by beauty and elegance, rather than rule-bound thought; mathematicians often do this. Problem solving often involves visual rather than verbal forms of work. There is only a small role for conscious thinking in these processes.

Intuitive and analytical problem-solving can also evoke different physiological responses, such as feeling warm just before solving a problem, i.e. at the intuition stage. When people have insights, spikes can be seen in the right hemisphere. The right hemisphere is better at regulating and inhibiting emotion as well as engaging with emotion.

The overarching message from this talk was that there is a place for intuition in our lives. We need a glimpse of the illusive nature of reality.

Today all the available sources of intuitive life – cultural tradition, the natural world, the body, religion and art – have been so conceptualised, devitalised and ‘deconstructed’ (ironised) by the world of words, mechanistic systems and theories constituted by the left hemisphere that their power to help us see beyond the hermetic world that it has set up has been largely drained from them. (p.244 The Master and His Emissary).

So we shouldn’t examine our interior thinking too early. There is a moment and a place to think consciously and critically, but this is a secondary phase and mustn’t come too early.

In the words of Kant:

‘concepts without intuitions are empty; intuitions without concepts are blind’ (cited on p.215 The Master and His Emissary)


McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

Source of image: The Divided Brain RSA Animate Video

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