Intuitions are a vivid aspect of our subjective experience. We often use the term ‘intuition’ as a catch-all label for a variety of effortless, inescapable, self-evident perceptions or flashes of insight that seem to arrive fully-formed and without warning.

Intuitions are hard to define and difficult to talk about with precision. Their origins and mechanisms are hidden and murky. They are the product of physiological and neural processes well below the level of conscious awareness or any reasoned discernment.

It seems that the explicit conscious thoughts that we can articulate are just the tip of our cognitive iceberg. The subconscious mind, introduced by Freud with great literary aplomb, and still in the very early stages of exploration by neuroscience, remains mysterious and enigmatic.

Intuition allows us make judgments in the blink of an eye without careful deliberation or systematic analysis of all the available facts. We trust our “gut” reactions and first impressions. They enable us to discern the sincerity of a conversation partner, read the prevailing ambience in a room or feel a sense of impending doom. These insights or early warning "survival" mechanisms are palpable and we ignore them at our peril. They are only irrational in the sense that the cognitive fragments (some of them non-linguistic) and experiential memories that support them remain largely hidden.


Ask two volunteer students to act as assistants. Tell the remainder of the class that they are about to enter a zone of sensory distortion and introspection; and must listen to the instructions carefully. Ask one of the student volunteers to read out the instructions slowly and "mindfully":

1. Close your eyes... Relax completely... Focus  your own gentle breathing... Notice the sounds around you, but do not be distracted by them...

2. In a moment, when a I say "begin," keep your eyes closed and try to estimate when three minutes have passed. At that point simply raise your hand. My assistant will touch your hand gently to indicate that the number of seconds of your estimate has been logged and that you can lower your hand. After that you will continue to keep your eyes closed, and continue to relax, until I say, "now open your eyes." to indicate that the activity has ended. 

The times (in seconds) and student first names can be recorded in sequence by an assistant on the whiteboard. The assistants should ask the following generative questions to get some initial class discussion going. 

What happened?
What was going on?

Be honest did you count?
Was this fast (intuitive) or slow (analytical) thinking?

Before moving to the Intuitions Anonymous unit, allow the whole class to take a first pass at addressing the following Knowledge Questions. The questions cover a lot of ground. Intuition is perhaps our most various, nuanced and enigmatic Way of Knowing. Printable pdf of instructions and all of the questions.


  • What are the some of the losses and/or gains when analysis and reason are abandoned in favor of intuition? 
  • How much of intuition can be attributed to genetically-determined, "hard wired" instinct? 
  • To what extent can intuition be attributed to solely to pattern recognition and associative memory below the level of consciousness? How does emotion come into play?
  • Can intuition be honed? What is the relationship between learning and intuition? Does the trained musician, dancer or mathematician have richer insights than untrained individuals in their respective fields? 
  • Is intuition the mysterious stuff of creativity? 
  • Mathematical proof hinges on hard logic and an assumption of certainty, but the axioms of mathematics are taken as self-evident. Is the edifice of mathematics founded on a fragile base of intuition? 
  • When we make complex judgments in context are we relying mostly on intuition? Is there a genetically determined ethical instinct?


Another smart ape that relies on instincts/intuition... a young Bonobo from the Congo Basin

Another smart ape that relies on instincts/intuition... a young Bonobo from the Congo Basin