Do you listen to your intuition during everyday tasks, like grocery shopping, or crossing a busy street? How about for more complex decisions like buying a car? New research supports the theory that intuition—a sense of “knowing” without clear proof or rationale—not only exists, but is also both measurable and accessible to all of us. Myriad groups believe that our subconscious may be involved in how we react intuitively to situations.

Subconscious Perception with the Five Senses

Do we perceive far more information with our five senses than we consciously realize? Australian researchers found that people can accurately “sense” a right answer before they could articulate how they arrived at that conclusion. This is the latest of dozens of studies that indicates we perceive, store, and utilize far more information than we consciously register.

In the study, participants were shown a series of photos of the same person or scene. Some photos were slightly altered while others were the same as the original. Participants often sensed that a photo had been altered, but could not identify what the change was. In other words, participants accessed subconsciously-stored visual information to form an accurate “hunch.”

Sensing Risk with Intuition

Could our bodies sense risk before our minds are consciously aware? Researchers at the University of Iowa found that our bodies react first to intuition, before consciously feeling a “hunch” and being able to explain the feeling later on.

In the study, participants played a card game to win money. They were not told the game had been rigged; selecting cards from one of two decks was relatively safe, whereas cards from the other deck was much more risky. After choosing about 50 cards, participants had a “hunch,” preferring one deck over the other. It wasn’t until after approximately 80 card selections that participants were able to explain the difference between the two decks.

Remarkably, after selecting only ten cards, participants’ bodies reacted differently to the two decks. When participants reached for the risky deck, they started sweating. This observation seems to suggest that our bodies can sense whether a choice is safe or risky before our minds consciously register this.

Satisfaction with Intuitive Decisions

When was the last time you used your intuition to make an important decision? A study published in Science found that making major decisions driven by intuition ultimately leaves you feeling more satisfied with your choices.

Consumer satisfaction with purchases—both in the lab and in real-life shopping experiences—were examined. Purchases were divided into two categories—simple (towels, clothing, where only one or two factors—like size and color—are important) and complex (cars and houses, where there were many important factors that could impact your decision).

Participants were also divided into two groups: one made decisions with conscious, deliberate (often time-consuming) thought. The other group relied on “unconscious thought.” They received the same product information as the first group, but were distracted with puzzles and asked to not think about their decision. Consumers were found to be more satisfied with their simpler purchases when they engaged in conscious, deliberate thought to make decisions. However, when it came to complex products like cars, consumers were more satisfied with selections when they engaged in unconscious thought prior to purchases.

Why is this true? It’s believed that there is a limited capacity of conscious thought involved in making complex decisions. With conscious thought we take into account only a subset of pertinent information. And we over- or underemphasize the importance of certain attributes. Therefore, without the barriers of conscious thought, unconscious thought may allow us to access more complete information. Researchers conclude that when it comes to large, complex decisions, acting based on intuitive “hunches” can lead to greater satisfaction.

Intuitive Decisions in Medicine

Could intuition be effective in fields like medicine, where the stakes are much higher? A growing body of research supports the effectiveness of nurses’ intuition in the field, where quick and correct decisions lead to better patient outcomes.

For example, according to a 2012 study, this “practical intuition” is composed of four aspects, including:

  • “Embodied knowledge,” when the body knows how to act without conscious thought, like riding a bike.
  • Sensory perceptions that are well-trained to identify subtle details of complex and changing situations.
  • Possession of significant conceptual knowledge.
  • History of habitual actions to improve patient outcomes.

In other words, nurses have honed their intuition through both experience and knowledge; for them, intuition is not a supernatural “sixth sense.” Increasingly, there is demand for the concept and practice of intuition—learning to tune in and be aware of intuitive senses, especially the four aspects listed above—to be taught in nursing schools.

Argument Against Intuition

Based on how intuition is defined, researchers may argue over its existence. Studies support the existence of intuition when we subconsciously store more information than we are consciously aware of, increasing the likelihood of accurate “hunches.” However, when intuition is defined as a supernatural ability, the evidence for its existence is weaker.

A 2008 Harvard study on extrasensory perception (ESP)—the ability to “know” something without using any of the five senses—failed to demonstrate the existence of this “sixth sense.” In the study, researchers attempted to transfer images to participants’ minds by using the three types of ESP:

  • Telepathy—communicating with another person using only the mind—was tested by showing the image to a close family member or friend of the participant.
  • Clairvoyance—perceiving distant things or events—was tested by showing the image on a screen outside of the view of the participant.
  • Precognition—predicting the future—was tested by showing the image to the participant at a later date.

Later, participants were shown two types of images—some that were used in the ESP study and some that were not. Theoretically, if a participant perceived any of these images through ESP, their brains should react differently and recognize those images then when presented with images not used during the study. Because researchers didn’t find any differences in the way the brains reacted to the two types of images, the study provided evidence against the existence of a “sixth sense.”

Researchers also warn that we are inclined to feel an intuitive sense when none exists. An article published by the American Psychological Association said, “sometimes people overestimate their intuition and prevent sound decision-making.” When it comes to intuition, “the illusion is so powerful,” we want to see it, even when it isn’t there.

Conclusion

When intuition is defined as access to subconsciously stored information perceived through the five senses, many studies have found evidence supporting its existence. Additional research finds many positive impacts of following intuitive “hunches,” including avoiding risk, and greater satisfaction with choices.

What is the best decision? What is coming in the future? What is the right answer? In the quest for answers to these questions, it is human nature to seek certainty. As a result, we may make connections where there are none, or think we feel intuition when we do not. Every “hunch” we feel may not be accurate, but, like with any skill, the more we practice hearing and using intuition, the more proficient we become.


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About The Author

Stephanie Taube

Stephanie holds a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from UC Berkeley, as well as a Bachelor’s Degree in Anthropology and Minor in Women’s Studies from the University of Michigan. She has conducted academic research on the effectiveness of substance abuse treatment for women, the impact of social service programs for Seniors, and Medicaid policy reform in California.