Intuition is the Latinesque name for hunches or gut feelings – unconscious thinking. All people constantly use it, but it’s also easy to overlook. And it can go horribly wrong with bad information.
For activities such as walking or recognizing faces, it’s pretty clear that the processing is nearly all ‘under the radar,’ yet all pattern-recognition is at some level automatic. Like our digestion and healing, many of our mental skills are also automatic; we present our imaginations with a prompt, like the identity of the place we want to draw, and our brain produces the image for us.
Fortunately, you can train up your intuition, so that when you do have to take a guess, it will be better, and you’ll more often recognize when you can trust it…or let it go when you know you can’t.
Attention to the message and the accuracy improves both.
Great minds across the ages (from Archimedes to Einstein) reported that their intuition was their most important faculty, because that is what kept them pursuing a question that others had given up on, or thought was totally settled.
Stunning epiphanies, or ‘flashes from the blue’ are yet another level of intuition we can train. Long serious attention to something, followed by a completely different activity can reliably produce such ‘flashes.’ Music and exercise also appear to help, which isn’t really too surprising;
Regardless of what you call it, or how it’s expressed, your intuition or unconscious thinking can be trained in two easy steps (habitually repeated):
- Pay attention to it.
- Test it for accuracy.
That’s it. That’s all you have to do, and how exactly isn’t what matters. Your intuition, including the updating, still operates the same as ever; without you noticing.
You don’t have to worry about reviewing when you find an error, or rehearsing or reinforcing the correct ones. That part is all built in. You only have to give it some attention, and some feedback. It takes care of repeating what worked, and replacing what doesn’t automatically.
When you practice anything, your intuition develops, but you can increase the speed of that development with a very minor investment of time and effort. When addressing any abstract question, and especially for standardized tests, the two steps are easy to implement.
1: After you’ve completely finished with any problem, write down your level of confidence in your answer.
You can use a percentage or odds, a 1-10 scale or stars. Use whatever makes sense to you for recording your level of confidence, because the way you measure it is not nearly as important as taking a moment to make that guess – to let your hunches ‘weigh in.’
That habit of recording your confidence level is an easy way to develop the habit of noticing your confidence level. Keep paying attention, and it will get easier to poll.
2: When you check your answers, also check the accuracy of your confidence level.
It’s an extra layer of abstraction, but not that difficult and that’s really all it takes.
When you’ve recorded a high level of confidence for answers you got right (or a low level of confidence for answers you got wrong,) your brain automatically engages those circuits more often and remembers the kind of problem it worked for. When you have a high level of confidence for a question you answered wrong (or a low level of confidence in a correct answer) your brain will automatically stop using those circuits in favor of the ones that produced an appropriate level of confidence.
As you practice paying attention and evaluating your intuition, your confidence-check will become generally more accurate; you’ll know more often when you have it right or if your answer is shaky. You will also start to notice which kinds of questions you can trust it to help you with, and which kind it cannot.
Learning when you can trust your hunches and when they are nothing but guesses might be the primary advantage of consciously training your intuition.
Sometimes it comes down to guessing, and when it does, your intuition is often the only resource you have.
We now know that engaging the emotions are necessary for our best thinking:
Research has also repeatedly shown that for major life decisions, or very complicated ones, intuition and gut checks often give superior results than a more deliberate analysis;
…but only when you’ve given your intuition good information!
©2005 Thomas R. McWilliams Jr