You know the feeling. It’s a ‘knowing’ or at the very least a gentle persuasion that something is off, or awesome, or needs our attention. It’s subtle and doesn’t clamour for attention, which is why it’s easily missed.
It’s intuition, and like most things that speak with a quiet voice, if we listen the potential is life-changing.
For a long time, intuition was dismissed by science as pseudo-science – sort of science but not really. Really! Fortunately for all of us, science is now on board and researchers have found the part of the brain where intuition does its brilliant best.
Intuition: We’ve all heard of it, but what is it?
Researchers at Leeds University analysed a hefty pile of research papers on intuition. They concluded that intuition is a very real psychological process where the brain uses past experiences and cues from the self and the environment to make a decision. The decision happens so quickly that it doesn’t register on a conscious level.
Intuition exists in all of us, whether we acknowledge it or not. The more we can learn about it, the more we can use it to shape our lives for the better.
The human brain has two ‘operating systems’. The first is quick, instinctual and effortless. This is where our intuition lies. Intuition works by drawing on patterns collected by our experience and when we have to make a quick decision about whether something is real, fake, feels good, feels bad, right or wrong, we draw on these patterns. It all happens ‘offline’, outside our conscious awareness.
The second operating system is slower to respond. It’s more analytical and deliberate and it’s conscious.
Science has found real evidence to support the existence of intuition. There are plenty of studies, but let’s talk about one in particular – because it’s a good one. This particular study showed how the intuitive part of our brain knows the right answer long before the more analytical part.
In this study, participants played a card game which, unknown to the participants, was rigged from the beginning. Participants had to choose from one of two decks of cards. One was rigged to provide big wins, then big losses. The other – small gains but hardly any losses.
The participants reported that after 50 cards, they had a hunch about which deck was safer. After 80 they were able to explain the difference between the two decks. But here’s where it gets interesting – after only 10 cards, the sweat glands on on the palms of their hands opened whenever they took from the dangerous deck. It was about then that participants started to prefer the safer deck but there was no conscious awareness that this was happening. So, before the analytical part of their brain knew what was going on, the subjects’ intuition guided them towards a better decision.
Sharpening Your Intuition
Every person on the planet has intuition but not every person listens chooses to listen to it.
Intuition is the way the subconscious mind communicates with the conscious mind. The information that informs ‘that feeling’ is real. It’s like any other decision but the workings of it – the collection, the storage, the putting together – happen outside of our conscious mind.
So intuition is a brilliant thing. The sharper it is, the better off you’ll be. Here’s how to feed yours so it’s flourishing and ready to advise …
It’s sounds simple enough – and it is. No tricks here. Your intuition can’t talk to you if you’re not listening. When you start to take notice, good things will happen. Just try it and see.
Trust your gut feeling.
When a word like ‘gut’ teams up with a word like ‘feeling’, you know there has to be a good reason. And there is. Research suggests that emotion and intuition have a physical presence in our gut. The gut is lined with a network of neurons and is often referred to as the ‘second brain.’ It’s known as the enteric nervous system (ENS) and it contains about 100 million neurons, which is more than the spinal chord and peripheral nervous system but less than the brain. This is why we get ‘sick’ about having to make a tough decision or knowing we’ve made a bad one.
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You’ll know your intuition is there because you’ll be able to feel it – if you let yourself. You’ll feel it in your belly and it will goosebump your skin, send a shiver down your spine, race your heart and quicken your breath. Sometimes it’s even more subtle and the only way to describe it as a ‘knowing’. You’ll feel when something is right – it will feel clear, nourishing and enriching. And you’ll feel when something is off – for me it’s an ache or a flattening. Trusting your intuition might be difficult at first if you’re not used to it, but give it time and trust it bit by bit, if that feels better. It will be worth it.
Be ready to let bad feelings go.
Negative emotions wil cloud intuition, which is why when you’re angry or depressed bad decisions can happen so easily. Research has backed this, finding that people made better intuitive choices in a word task when they were in a positive mood as compared to when they were in a negative mood.
Be deliberate about the people you hang on to.
People who drain you will add to the noise and make it more difficult to hear what your intuition wants you to hear. Chances are that you already know how they are. If not, be still for a moment – your intuition will be trying to tell you. Keep people who enrich and empower you and walk away from those who drain you. Understandably, you can’t always walk away from the troublesome ones and if that’s the case, empower yourself by making it your decision to stay, rather than not theirs because they’ve taken your choice. The difference is subtle in language but big in impact. One lets the power stay with you, one gives it over to them.
Pay attention to what’s going on around you.
The more information you are able to gather from the environment, the more the intuitive, subconscious part of your brain has to work with – and the more accurately it will inform your decisions.
Connect with others.
There are so many things that inform our opinions and decisions other than speech. Tone, volume of speech, body language, gestures – they all contribute to the meaning we give to our interactions with people. Sometimes, we have a feeling about people but can’t quite put a finger on what it is. People might seem distant, distracted, uninterested, and often these aren’t spoken but are ‘picked up’ through in different ways. The ability to pick up on the thoughts, feelings and intentions of others is referred to as ‘empathic accuracy’. The more time we spend with people, the more we can finely tune or empathic accuracy. Being able to pick on the signals of others will all add to intuition.
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Find time to be silent and still.
Having solitude turns down the clamour of the world and allows you to tune in to your intuition. Our intuition is always sending warnings and encouragement but often we are too busy to notice. Let your mind wander and be open to what comes to you – feelings, thoughts or words. One of the ways to do this is through mindfulness. By focusing your thoughts on your own experience in the present moment, mindfulness gets rid of mental clutter and makes way for you to connect with your intuition.
Use your dream time well.
Dreams are the brain’s way of processing information that’s left over from the day. They are rich with valuable data – experiences, memories, learnings – so they can work hard if we let them. Paying attention to dreams can provide information that we may not have access due when we are awake. Before you fall asleep, turn your thoughts to any unresolved issues or problems. Think about possible options or resolutions as you’re falling asleep. Close your eyes and let your brain do the rest.
But of course …
Intuition is powerful and can lead to amazing insights, but that doesn’t mean you follow it blindly. It’s still important to use common sense and a balance of rationality. You need a balance of both – call into play both the intuitive and rational parts of the brain to position yourself to reach the best decisions.