Intuition and Neurology

Intuition at once seems both the least understood, yet one of the most commonly experienced and powerful Ways of Knowing. Many of the most important decisions that we make (romantic partners, jobs, etc) are based on intuitive feelings / responses, yet this process of decision making is very little understood. At an experiential level Intuition feels as if it does not stand up to logic based ways of knowing.

Volz and Zander (2009) define intuition as: “intuition is based on automatic processes that rely on knowledge structures acquired through different kinds of learning. This definition further posits that intuitions operate at least partially without a person’s awareness but nevertheless result in feelings, signals, or interpretations. In short, intuition is a non-conscious process exerting influence on behavior by drawing on implicitly acquired knowledge that signals higher processing areas in the conscious brain”.

To understand intuition as more than a near inexplicable meta-reality we can look to cognitive processing in the memory and attention systems. Intuition could be understood as a process of attaching implicit memories to conscious and subconscious memory systems.

This study (Voss & Paller, 2009), published online in Nature Neuroscience, provides evidence that the retrieval of explicit and implicit memories involves distinct neural substrates and mechanisms.

Essentially the research shows that stimuli encoded and stored whilst attention was diverted elsewhere were remembered more strongly than stimuli which were directly encoded through volition. As such this research indicates that intuition is most probably a product of learned behaviour rather than an innate ‘sixth sense’.

The ‘indirect learning’ hypothesis of intuition brings forth a range of interesting knowledge questions about physical sensory perception, such as:

  • Is evolved niche development the cause or consequence of the development of sense perception ?
  • Why did visual perception become the primary human sense?
  • Have we ‘lost’ perceptual senses beyond those currently known ?, is the residual data from lost / declining senses now  labelled as intuition ?

Why is it important ?

If Intuition is based on neurological processes of perception and learning (albeit indirect learning) then we should be able to improve decision making which is apparently based on ‘intuition’. This is exactly what Wan et al (2012) demonstrated with the training of novices in the game of Shogi (Japanese Chess). They trained the novices for 15 weeks, whilst also monitoring neural activation through fMRI. Wan et al took ‘next-move’ knowledge as being indicative of the knowledge that we usually label as ‘intuitive knowledge’. They compared professional players with amateurs, and found that professionals had a significantly higher level of stimulation of the caudate nucleus, an area in the dorsal of the Basal Ganglia. The role of the caudate nucleus in voluntary motor functioning has long been known, we are now beginning to understand that it also has a role in spatial mnemonics – which is similar in aspect to muscle memory. It is clear that indirect learning is involved in muscle memory, and other sensory based memories, as such the neurological basis for intuition becomes established.

Abstract from Wan et al 2012:  By comparing professional players with amateurs in the game of shogi (Japanese chess), we recently confirmed that quick generation of the best next-move occurred more reliably in professionals than in amateurs and then found that activation in the head of caudate nucleus, a dorsal part of the basal ganglia, but not cortical activation, was specifically associated with this process (Wan et al., 2011). The caudate head activation was specific in that it was less prominent in amateur players and was absent during deliberative search in either subject group. These findings associated the capability of quickly generating the best next-move to the caudate head. However, a critical unaddressed issue was whether different activation patterns in the caudate head between professionals and amateurs could be explained by their differential training histories, or by differences in intrinsic brain function that existed before the training (Poldrack, 2000). Therefore, it remains to be determined whether activation in the caudate head emerges in association with the development of quick generation capability through extensive training.

The claim that intuition has a neurological basis should be of interest to ToK students for a number of reasons:

  • This claim supports Reason as a WoK, and casts doubt upon the unified coherence of Intuition as a WoK.
  • This claim is gained through Natural Sciences as AoK, and supports both evolutionary and functionalist perspectives.
  • This claim leads to the possibility of currently unspecified AoK’s, those which have possibly ‘declined’ / lost during human evolution.

In conclusion I come back to the power of intuition, it’s the WoK that we rely upon to either validate other WoK’s or use to make the most important decisions in our lives (e.g. who to have a relationship with, who to trust etc). Neuroscience is increasingly showing us that intuition is actually a learned set of skills and knowledge. As such it should be possible for us to teach people to be more intuitive. This would lead to better, and faster, decision making. As such knowledge of intuition becomes both an individual and social good.

Detailed research, Lieberman 2000, demonstrating the neurological basis of intuition.

More research on the Neurological basis of intuition


5 thoughts on “Intuition and Neurology

  1. This is an interesting piece. As I learn more martial arts my initial “intuitive” moves have changed based on my personal knowledge and my “intuitive” moves become more natural based on practice and learning. My “gut intuition” also tells me that it is reason first and then the intuition. Firemen also seem to just “know” when the right time to get out is based on practice and learning the environments which may be thought of as intuition but is more probably linked to learned behavior. Thanks for sharing.

  2. In 1975, under the influence of pre-operation meds for minor surgery, I experienced a perfectly sane, smooth, regression back in space/time in which I experienced / re-experienced every significant moment of dozens of “past lives,” changing sex and dying many times, all as naturally as breathing and with no disorientation or loss of “self.” An Atheist then and now, I felt/feel strongly that I relived my ancestors’ lives via DNA / RNA , and opiates have been known to stimulate neurotransmitters and alter the genes/brains of users.

    When I sent the account of my regression to my Right Brain Trust friend Darold Treffert, a clinical psychiatrist who has studied autistic and other savants for 50 years, he replied that he had heard dozens of similar accounts from neuro-typical people, and sent me this article he wrote on Ancestral / Genetic Memory. He is correct in saying that until and unless theories of the brain can explain the astonishing and puzzling behavior of savants, they cannot be complete.

    Save this great, vast, website and explore links – esp. savant profiles and videos!

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