Instinct and Intuition Can be Trained

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Aside from business executives, there are other professionals who use intuition and instinct, and in some cases it is about crude survival tactics. In war, life-and-death decisions must be made instantly, with little if any time for rational analysis. And what’s more impressive is that the army has discovered that the ability to act effectively from gut feelings can be improved through training.

Time after time, the army has learned the “the speed with which the brain reads and interprets sensations like the feelings in one’s own body and emotions in the body language of others is central to avoiding imminent threats.” The U.S. military has spent billions of dollars to protect against improvised explosive devices (IEDs), investing in hardware and technology to seek and destroy these homemade roadside bombs. But experts say it is the human brain that has proven to be the most perceptive detection system. Troops often credit their experience and perception—their gut feelings—for their ability to notice and foil IED attacks.

U.S. troops are a central focus of a large effort to understand how it is that in a life-or-death situation some people’s brains can sense danger and act on it well before others can. Experience matters on the battleground. If you have seen something before, you are more likely to anticipate it the next time. Yet it is not just experience that matters. Research suggests that something else is at work too. “Small differences in how the brain processes images, how well it reads emotions and how it manages surges in stress hormones help explain why some people sense imminent danger before most others do.”

Unfortunately, for some time feelings have been perceived as having little to do with rational decision making. In fact, it has long been thought that they just get in the way of it. But according to Dr. Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, “Now that position has reversed. We understand emotions as practical action programs that work to solve a problem, often because we’re not conscious of it. These processes are at work continually.” All scientific facts point to the evidence of an inner knowing preceding our rational mind.

Excerpted from The Intuitive Compass, Jossey-Bass, 2011.

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