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Intuition - Just Don't Think About It

Part of my job scope as a chemical engineer involves travelling (I know, what a foreign concept these days!) to various refineries, where I interview plant operators on how they operate the plant safely. The thing that always strikes me during our interactions is how well they know the operation of the plant. For example, they know almost instantly the impact of any one variable change on the rest of the plant. And they know this faster than an engineer with their complex equations can predict. Of course this would be the case: their ability to respond quickly to an emergency can be a matter of life and death.

Across other professions, the same thread holds true. A well-trained physiotherapist may arrive at a rough diagnosis after a few cursory questions. Similarly, a teacher may instinctively know if their students are grasping a concept being taught. All the best chefs will have a feel for the exact balance of ingredients needed to produce a perfect dish.

In all of these cases, we see that experts often have to make snap decisions not based on conscious consideration of the facts available, but on the use of Intuition. Experts are experts because their knowledge and experience have given them a new tool in their toolbox – Intuition.

So, what is intuition? The kind of intuition I am talking about here has been the subject of great interest to psychologists. To fully understand it, we need to define it within the context of its opposite counterpart – what I like to call Careful Consideration. Intuition and Careful Consideration have been described by many authors. Timothy Gallwey calls it Self 1 and Self 2 in his book The Inner Game of Tennis. Nobel Memorial Prize laureate Daniel Kahneman refers to the pair as System 1 and System 2 in Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Careful Consideration involves slowing down, analysing the facts, and assessing the knowledge we have available to us. It is deliberate. Intuition, on the other hand, is reactionary and oftentimes involuntary. Intuition identifies patterns and matches it to patterns we are familiar with. It is not necessarily focused on a single input, but takes in the information from all five of our senses. Which is why Intuition is sometimes described as the “gut feeling” we get when faced with a situation. When was the last time you just knew exactly what you wanted to have for lunch? And how much harder is that decision when you have to slow down and really think about what you want?

Literally, gut feeling.

"What do you want for lunch?"

-Biggest trick question in history.

If Intuition is the hunch an experienced plant operator has, Careful Consideration is the number crunching the engineer does to arrive at the same answer.

Consider the image below. Let me give you the spoiler – it’s a picture of both an old woman and a young woman (read till the end for a hint if you still can’t see it). If you were to carefully consider each line in the drawing specifically, my guess is you would initially have a fairly hard time seeing both the old woman and young woman. Instead, you almost need to “zoom out” and not “think” about it too much. Once you see both women, you can naturally switch back and forth on demand. You just know that the old woman and young woman are in the drawing. Have you experienced a similar feeling in the craft that you are trying to master?

One area where Intuition is useful is in sports or reactionary type tasks. You may think of certain cues on how to hit a golf ball beforehand, but when it comes time to swing your club, you cannot overthink it. You rely on intuition piecing the information together for you and translating that to your body movement.

Another important time we rely on Intuition is in high stress situations. Have you seen videos of dads catching their falling babies? Or think back to the last time you gave a really important presentation. Did it feel like you were in “autopilot” mode? What would have happened if you stopped mid presentation to think about what you wanted to say? When our senses are saturated, we often revert to pattern recognition and fast cognition.

Our Intuition is often underutilized and underdeveloped. We are not taught this in school. Instead, we are told to always slow down and consider all the facts. While this may be true in some decisions, this is not always the best approach. Intuition and Careful Consideration are both useful tools, and when to use them is situational. It comes with experience. That being said, there are techniques we can use to sharpen our Intuition. I will cover these techniques another time.

Try the following exercise this week. Examine all the decisions and problem-solving you do. Were there instances where you ignored your initial gut feeling, deciding instead to use Careful Consideration? What are areas you find yourself using Intuition pretty naturally? This will provide you some insight on how well developed your Intuition is in different areas of your life.

Oh, and if you were still wondering about the old woman/young woman picture, the young woman’s chin is the old woman’s nose. You’re welcome.

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