Intuition: What the Scientists Say


Where Does Intuition Come From?


Does it come from outside and beyond the senses, in some esoteric capacity of humans that science does’t yet understand? Or does it originate in the physical senses at some non-conscious level of awareness?

When we have an experience of intuition it is often associated with some type of feeling in our body. It may be something in “the pit of our stomach”, a “gut feeling”, a tingling sensation on our skin or behind the neck, or a constricted feeling in our chest. So it would seem that some biological process is involved.

But are these physiological signals an outcome of intuition, or are they the mechanism from which intuition is generated? This is a question which a number of scientists have attempted to answer.


The Body Plays an Important Role in Intuition


Several researchers have linked intuition with specific “body cues”, suggesting that the body’s responses can be used as a means of recognising and using intuition. Bechara and associates (1997) carried out an interesting study in which participants had to play a game of risk but without knowing exactly when they were taking a risk. The researchers found that the participants generated more electrical skin conductance response before engaging in higher risks, even though they were not consciously aware of the risk. In effect their bodies were telling them “Hey, watch out! This is risky!”.

Psychology tells us that many cognitive processes take place at an unconscious level. In other words we are continuously taking in information about our environment and processing it at some non-conscious level. Parts of our nervous system apparently react to that non-conscious information, as can be seen in the skin conductance response in the game of risk.


Sometimes You Just “Know”


In addition to physiological responses, it seems that we can somehow just “know” things without being able to explain how.

In a study by Lewicki (1986) participants were shown photos of facial expressions, and were able to detect minute variations of the basic proportions of the human face. The participants reported feeling that something was wrong with the faces, but were not able to specify what exactly. Consciously they couldn’t actually see anything wrong, but they just “knew” something wasn’t right.

In another study by Ambady & Rosenthal (1993) undergraduates watched a six second clip of a teacher giving a seminar, with the sound turned off. They were then asked to rate the teaching ability of the teacher. Their ratings were then compared to those of other students who had actually been present in the seminar. They found a significant correlation between ratings of the students who only had visual information about the teacher, compared with those who were present in the seminar. In just six seconds, and without all the extra information of listening to the content of the seminar, the participants were able to make the same conclusions about the teacher, based only on their impression or how they “felt”.

What this basically means is that we are able to process a lot of data at a non-conscious level and subsequently make judgements and conclusions.


The 10% Brain Myth – Could Intuition be the Other 90%?


Our brain is continuously receiving literally massive amounts of information that we are not consciously aware of. Like a huge super-computer it is absorbing and processing vast volumes of data. The brain is made up of around 100 billion neurons, which translates  to 100 trillion neural connections, so it’s not unreasonable to suppose that we could unconsciously be processing almost limitless amounts of knowledge.

Not surprisingly, the majority of neuroscientists disregard as a myth the idea that the brain only uses 10% of its potential capacity. According to cognitive neuroscientist and author, Christian Jarret, modern brain scans show intense activity coursing through the entire cerebral structure, even when we are resting. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the 10 % represents only our conscious mental processes. Beneath the surface of our awareness there is a whole other universe of activity.

From time to time intuition allows us brief access to that great databank, and throws into our conscious mind some information that we have no idea where it came from.


Intuition vs Instinct


Apparently our body can react to this information even before we are consciously aware of it. Many of our natural survival instincts function in this way, such as the evolutionary fears that some people have of heights, or of snakes.

Intuition Practice Tip 2Could this mean that there there is a link between intuition and instinct? In everyday speech, we often use the two words interchangeably.

However, there seems to be a general consensus among researchers that instinct is seen as distinct from intuition. Instincts are biological processes which are based on autonomic nervous system responses. In other words, instincts are “hardwired” responses, such as closing your eye in the presence of bright light, to give a simplified example. Of course some instincts may be more complex, but what differentiates them from intuition is that they are innate capabilities which do no arise as a result of experiential learning. Whilst we may be able to learn to suppress some instincts, such as a fear of heights, they are an innate part of us which is not learned or developed as you would a skill.

Instinct is a biologically-based process and is essentially unchanging, whereas intuition can be deliberately developed and improved. Perhaps intuition is a higher function that has evolved in humans from the more animalistic instincts? This would certainly make sense when you take into context how intuition ranges across a broad spectrum of human experience, from the physiological through to the psychic and spiritual.


The Body is One of Intuition’s Many Tools


So intuition, at least in some forms, most likely uses non-conscious cognitive processes, and manifests itself as observable bodily responses. If we can learn to recognise those physiological signs, then we will be able to train and develop our intuition as a skill.

Understanding the mechanics of how intuition interacts with your physical body is a big step towards learning the language of your intuition. When you then combine that understanding with the more spiritual dimensions of intuition you have the potential to expand you whole consciousness as a human and spiritual being.


Ambady, N., & Rosenthal, R. (1993). Half a minute: Predicting teacher evaluations from thin slices of nonverbal behavior and physical attractiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 431-441.

Bechara, A., Damasio, H., Tranel, D., Damasio, A.R. (1997). Deciding advantageously before knowing the advantageous strategy. Science, 275, 5304, 1293-1295.

Lewicki, P. (1986). Nonconscious Social Information Processing. New
York: Academic Press.


This is the second post in a series exploring intuition.

You can read the first post here: Intuition – The Sixth Sense?.


Coming up next:


Intuition and the brain – Is there an “intuition organ”? If you don’t want to miss the next post SUBSCRIBE, and you will also get free access to my video series about practical spirituality.

Photo credit: Smoking Intiution © by Dania J






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