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July 25th, 2020
Should you always trust your gut feeling? This feeling is trusted and queried beyond most all other sources of insight, commonly interpreted as though it were a kind of portal and connection to a deeper logic of the universe. What’s the reason for this all-encompassing trust? Do we prize this oracle because it’s never or rarely lead us astray? How does the answer to that question truly surface if we’re honest with ourselves? Is it possible that our intuition has been a terrible guide plenty of times, but we still heed its direction merely because of the way it presents? It’s the antithesis of human operation to do something you don’t feel like, and at the same time, the widespread attempt to figure out how to hack our individual systems and do things we don’t feel like doing but know we should is universally acknowledged as the key to individual progress.
This might be too broad of a description for something as hallowed as intuition. The protests are easy to imagine: the desire to stay on the couch and let the next episode autoplay isn’t intuition. The feeling we get in our gut is something that only occurs during special circumstances: when faced with a choice, a fork of fate, framed by an aura of suspense where the possibilities of life burn, waiting in the wings, standing attention for the cue to grip the universe and haul it in a new direction.
Perhaps it’s a counter-intuitive mistake when we fail to realize that the universe is getting hauled in a particular direction when we lazily let Netflix force-feed our next half hour of existence. It feels normal, it feels like nothing special. Intuition need not be used here, I’m just passing a little time. Where’s the harm in that?
As a point of definition, it’s always a circumspect exercise to examine what’s going on under the hood with the actual word. Intuition, from late middle English conveys “insight and spiritual perception,” originally with a theological connection. This derives from Late Latin intuitio, “a looking at, consideration” from the Proto-Indo-European root en- meaning simple “in” fused with -tueri meaning ‘to look at, watch over”, the same root that gives rise to the word tutor.
This is a comforting root. It evokes the sense that some sort of higher power is looking out for us. It’s easy to see how archetypes like guardian angels and gods can pop out of this concept and vice versa. Everything is so much easier when you have guidance, like when a tutor is leading you through a lesson, or when a parent shepherds you safely through the world while you figure things out, or when Netflix gives you every signal that it’s safe to just stay where you are and relax, I got you, I know just what you want, and it’s going to start playing in 5, 4, 3, 2. . .
Intuition seems as though it’s a system of understanding and judgement that we slowly create as we move through experience. It’s a time-saving system composed of heuristics that we trust to take in all the information we have and generate a good or bad feeling about the choices at hand.
But the experience of a feeling is tricky. Nothing is more persuasive and convincing than a feeling that pervades your entire sense of experience. In some sense we become intoxicated with the current feeling. When we are enraged with some circumstance, ideas about what to do and how to act pop into our mind and they seem satisfied, or at least justified. But often in retrospect, these choices seem terrible, whether they were acted upon or not. But then again, people don’t associate the intuitive choice while angry with Intuition with a capital ‘I’. We differentiate them, which seems like a gross oversight on closer examination. What feels intuitive in a circumstances (like being very angry) doesn’t seem like a good choice later, but in such a case the context has radically changed. So,
is intuition context dependant?
A better way to approach and pin intuition is with the counter-intuitive example. What does it mean when something is counter-intuitive? It’s when something operates in a way that isn’t in line with our intuition or common sense. So how do we come to understand it? If something doesn’t make sense, but it works, is it a matter of failed intuition or understanding? And furthermore, can our intuition improve? And if so, how exactly does it improve, and most importantly, how are we aware of a weakness in intuition and the congruent need to update or improve that intuition?
Simply: how do we detect the counter-intuitive?
Luckily, we have this handy, albeit exhausting ability to thoughtfully consider things in a way that puts emotion on a back-burner. The easiest way to detect the counter-intuitive is to simply make the intuitive choice and thoughtfully note when the consequences of that choice don’t roll out in line with the original intuition. Left to it’s own devices, our feelings are likely to lead us down the same hallway of mistakes over and over. We see this in the lives of friends and family all the time: making the same bad choice over and over, as though they expect that some magic instance of time will finally procure the result they expect. Could it be as simple as bad intuition? And the inability to realize that the remedy to a repeated mistake requires a counter-intuitive path?
Yes. After repeated mistakes, we’re bound to keep the broken record going if we don’t thoughtfully examine all areas of the loop in order to find the break. But after such conscientious effort - once we understand, we’ve built an intuition, and when circumstances blossom once again to reveal the key colors of that understanding, we gain the ability to respond differently because we feel differently when we see those colors.
Detecting counter-intuitive circumstances ahead of time is perhaps impossible. We might only really learn through mistakes. It’s possible to pinpoint the reasons for failure, but it’s impossible to pinpoint the reasons for success: failure is in the details, success is the entire circumstance.
This is also why we are predisposed to the negative: success emerges as we tend to failure in detail.
It’s counter-intuitive but by ignoring the worst we risk perpetuating it. But instead of emotional reaction, the sort of attention required is slow, thoughtful and full of effort. The intuitive response to the worst is of course, to simply react as we feel in the moment.
Countering-intuition by honestly recognizing it’s fallibility and honestly examining it’s mistakes is the only way we improve it. And in order to do that we have to acknowledge the counter-intuitive fact that intuition can misguide us.
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