Intuition vs thought, Pt 1
Intuition is that magic process that occurs when you encounter a person, place or thing and instantly realize something like a person’s trustworthiness, the safety of a location, the value of a thing.
What makes intuition special is the impression that we have somehow condensed information from the ether. It feels as if information has been spontaneously revealed, like a psychic event. Of course, if we take a scientific approach we have to stick with more simple assumptions until or unless they fail.
The ultimate dictonary
There’s no need to jump off the rationalist bandwagon to understand intuition.
Before getting started, let’s settle on a definition. The Oxford English Dictionary opens one from the 17th century: “The action of mentally looking at; contemplation, consideration, perception, recognition.” The next, later in the 1600s, is “the spiritual perception or immediate knowledge ascribed to angelic and spiritual beings with whom vision and knowledge are identical.” This definition reveals a lot about the value people have placed on intuitive understanding. At that stage in history it was still rooted in superstition but with the key ingredient: immediate knowledge. The OED also offers the modern definition: “The immediate apprehension by the intellect alone, a particular act of such apprehension. Direct or immediate insight.”
To probe a concept, it helps to use a minimal definition. If we tried to work from the definition that includes “angelic and spiritual beings” instead, we’d have to define what those are and we’d be off on a tangent before we started. The modern definition can be condensed to:
It’s not that intuition is necessarily devoid of thought – how could any process of apprehension be divorced from thought? Really, how can anything that happens in our brains be something other than thought? What distinguishes intuitive thought from reflective thought is that rather than think our way along a deliberate, rational train of consideration – induction or deduction, for example – when we intuit something, we simply know the answer.
As you read this, you intuit the meanings of the words. That is, you don’t have to stare at each word and reflect on their specific meanings, you just immediately “know” what the words mean. Nor do you have to consciously focus on the fact that you’re looking at a computer screen, distinguishing dark and light pixels and decoding those patterns into characters and then words.
People are really good at detecting patterns. I think this is the clue we need to understand the process of intuition.
I look at a word like “intuit” and the equivalent sound forms in my mind at the instant I see the word. There was a time, though, when I would have had to work my way through each letter, enunciating them in my mind with the hope that I could match the “sound” with something I’d heard before. I remember the process back in third grade when I first encountered the word “embarrassed” and later when I came upon “ironic.”
After enough practice, you see a word and the meaning pops into your head. It’s sort of the antithesis of what President Clinton was trying to do when he said “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”
Okay, you say, that’s all pretty simple, but does this mean that we can extend such a trivial analysis to something as complicated and magical as love at first sight?