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October 29th, 2018
It’s often reiterated that most scientific breakthroughs arise from a moment when a scientist or researcher get’s an unexpected result, and pauses, thinking to themselves “Huh, that’s strange.”
Such is the reaction when something counter-intuitive happens, and here we would do well to note exactly what counter-intuitive means.
Intuition in this case really just refers to our feelings. How we feel about a given choice, what we feel a given outcome will be, or which set of outcomes are most likely. Without much of a second thought, we rely on a feeling to divine an answer. Such divination is, of course based on our whole life’s experience, but then it’s exactly this sort of reason that makes our intuition systemically blind to unexpected results. Unless, of course, we have given substantial thought and practice to the difficult art of tempering our intuition with a knowledge that unexpected and even unimagined things can happen. Even with such tempering, our intuition is still largely responsible for most of our decisions, which is unfortunate: because it leaves us far less likely to entertain possible solutions that might actually solve some of our problems.
Take the common difficulty of being tired. The solution might seem like drinking coffee, or some other caffeinated drink. We might do so without realizing that the half-life of caffeine is 12 hours, meaning that 12 hours after drinking a cup of coffee, half of that caffeine is still floating around in our system having an effect. This is bound to have an ill effect on how we sleep, and inevitably lead to feeling tired the next day. In the same way that alcohol is joked as being both a problem and it’s cure, a cup of coffee slides into the same position as yesterday’s coffee keeps our sleep from properly rejuvenating our body and mind.
It seems counter-intuitive to get rid of the intuitive solution. I.E. get rid of the coffee altogether. If someone were somehow able to convince us of entertaining a strategy that just doesn’t feel right, but ends up working better than our previous solutions, we might reflect on the situation and thinking “huh, that’s strange.”
If we experience this enough times, or even hear about such things happening enough times, we might be able to foster a very healthy doubt to combat our all-too-flawed intuition when it comes to certain decisions. Whenever there is an opportunity to systematically and safely try different strategies, we would do well to scrap any input from our intuition altogether. It is our feelings and intuition that can keep us stubbornly tethered to a bad line of thinking and behaving for years and years, and without the useful tool of skepticism applied to our own intuition, we can remain slaves to our past, which is, at the end of the day, a fairly limited data set about what is possible and what works.
Like the scientist who does not even realize the impending breakthrough when she says “huh, that’s strange,” we should eagerly seek such situations and revelations about our own life. Each time we try something counter-intuitive that produces a result that we never anticipated, we are indeed growing the data set we carry around about what’s possible, and the more things we are aware of that are possible, the more agency we can evoke as people in the world.
It’s counter-intuitive, but fostering a determination to hunt down the areas were you are wrong actually makes you more accurate and precise in the long term.
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