The Psychology of Intuition

Lynn Martelli
Lynn Martelli

“Trust your gut,” or so the proverbial wisdom goes. It’s referring to a real phenomenon, also known as “intuition;” and countless people vouch for it:

  • The happily married couple who after 50 years of marriage recall how they “just knew” they were meant for each other; or the woman who ignored her feelings of dread in the lead-up to her wedding and subsequently regretted it
  • The young person who, in a rare moment of clarity, finds their life purpose
  • The scientist who, in the process of studying the evidence, has a “hunch” about the next question to ask and stumbles upon a major discovery
  • Your sudden sense that you’re in danger and need to find safety

What is intuition? Where does it come from? What can it do for us, and is “trust your gut” good advice in the end? If it is, how do you trust your gut?

What Intuition Is and Where It Comes from

Though often described in terms of “gut feelings,” intuition arises in the brain and is a product of “automatic processing.” What is automatic processing? Psychology Today defined it as “brain processing that automatically compares swiftly perceived elements of current experience with past experience and knowledge.” These “perceived elements of current experience” then break through an individual’s conscious awareness “with considerable emotional certainty.”

This emotional component is an important defining feature of intuition. Intuition, its presence and function, is often signified by physical sensations in the stomach that have an emotional character to them: a knot or tightening (fear or anxiety); a hollow “pit” (a sense of dread or fear); “butterflies” and a nervous fluttering (anxiety and/or love).

What Intuition Can Do

A remarkable thing about intuition is what it can do. It alerts people to danger but also fulfills other “higher” functions or “levels of intuition,” as the author and artist Simone Wright called them in an article for HuffPost. If “Level 1” is the primal “gut instinct” supporting safety, security, and survival….

  • “Level 2” is “heart-based intelligence,” characterized by “courage, compassion, and connection.  
  • “Level 3” is “visionary power.” Its attributes are “imagination, visionary certainty, and creative possibility.”
  • “Level 4” is “connection to universal wisdom,” or what Wright terms “universal awareness and unity consciousness.”

Wright’s language may not resonate with everyone, but it speaks to how intuition can be a powerful source of insight, direction, self-growth, and healing. As one illustration, it is not uncommon for people to say they felt “led” to come to a 12-step meeting. They may not have wanted to come but sensed they needed to come to address a drinking problem or another issue.

“Trust Your Gut”—Good Advice?

In short, there is a strong case to be made for trusting one’s gut in many different scenarios—but how effective is intuition, versus rational thinking, at helping you make life decisions? When a Stanford psychologist asked the same question in a study in 2011, he found that intuition led to “the best choice” 68 percent of the time, whereas rational thinking led to the best choice only 26 percent of the time.

Since that time, other research has favored rational analysis over intuition in quick decisions like buying stocks or a car.

How to Listen to Your Gut

Such findings do not negate the power of intuition to influence important life decisions. How, then, do you listen to your gut?

This is easier for some people than for others. Some are just naturally more intuitive thinkers and pay more attention to their feelings, while others are not.

Those who have experienced trauma may struggle to listen to their intuition or to differentiate it from feelings of anxiety, hyperarousal, or hypervigilance. People with PTSD and symptoms of trauma may dissociate from their body, retreating to and “getting stuck in” their head.

Treatment for PTSD can help rebuild the mind-body connection, so that the individual can begin to live in their body again and pay more attention to what their gut is telling them.

“Expansive” or “Contractive”?

One way to listen to your gut? Ask whether it’s feeling “expansive” or “contractive,” a therapist recommended in an article in Inc. The same article went on to describe expansiveness as “light, powerful, exciting,” and feeling “‘in the zone’ doing something you love.” These are green lights: Your intuition is saying “yes.”

“Contractive,” on the other hand feels “heavy, tight,” or “carries with it a sense of dread or secrecy.” You may feel hunched over or tight in your jaw. These are signs that your intuition is saying “no.”

Learning how to listen to your gut can be challenging but is often rewarding. With time and more attentiveness, it’s possible to grow in self-awareness and self-understanding. Just that breakthrough alone can be transformational.

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