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What is intuition? Definitions, Examples, and Ways to Boost It

The quarterback drops back 10 feet and cranks the football to his shoulder, muscles tensing. His eyes dart around the field, looking for an open receiver. It's third and long, and this play is one of their most cunning - few defenses in the league can handle it. It's all but guaranteed that one of his guys will be open right where he needs them.

Suddenly, the QB fakes a pass and pushes headfirst into the crowd of immense linemen in front of him. He jukes left and right, finally dusting off the last defender with a spin move. He cuts through the open field and hightails it for the endzone. Touchdown.

But how did he know that none of his teammates were open, even without checking them one-by-one?

Like most psychological processes, intuition first developed in mammals hundreds of thousands of years ago. Similar to fear, intuition is not something one has to think about in order to have - it's a passive form of cognition.

Everyone knows what intuition feels like, but few know exactly what happens in our brains when we experience it.

Let's dive into intuition, the role it plays in our lives, and the ways we can use it to our advantage. By understanding how it works, we might even be able to boost our intuition so we can think faster on our feet and make decisions without overthinking.

Learn about intuition on this page:

Intuition Definition

Real-Life Examples of Intuition

How to Boost Your Intuition

Intuition Definition

Officially, intuition is the ability to know something without having to reason through it.

Definition Template (13)

Note that intuition is not the same as habit or muscle memory. For example, you can likely make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without thinking about it. That's not intuition - you've just done it so many times that you can do it on autopilot.

Intuition, by contrast, is more sophisticated. Intuition is less about objective thought and more about subjective feelings - though, as we'll see later, it's certainly a very real process in the brain.

Think about our example of the quarterback deciding to run on a play destined to be passed. How did the quarterback know that he needed to run down the middle instead of searching for an open receiver? That sort of split-second decision in the absence, seemingly, of enough data - that's intuition.

How does intuition work in the brain?

Despite the sensation of intuition being defined by a "feeling", intuition is actually the result of a very involved and sophisticated process within the brain.

Here's how it works:

The cortex (the squiggly outer part of the brain) takes in information and processes it slowly. When you encounter a new math problem, for example, and take the time to work through it, your cortex is activated as it parses out information and sews it back together using logic.

If you do a complex calculation enough times, your brain begins to file the details of how to perform that calculation in a very specific part of your brain called the caudate nucleus. This, scientists believe, is where experts put their expertise. The logic and reasoning they need to do for their given field are stored there for easy access, becoming a permanent part of their brain.

In order to save processing power, an expert's cortex will begin to access compressed chunks of logic from the caudate. Rather than having to, for example, comb through an equation to determine whether it's solvable, an expert mathematician's cortex will absorb the equation instantly and then tap the caudate nucleus to prove almost subconsciously that it isn't solvable.

Internally, the brain does register and solve the problem, but externally, the mathematician simply walks past the chalkboard, glances at the equation, and impresses her students by casually mentioning that the equation is wrong.

Real-Life Examples of Intuition

Here are three real-life examples of intuition in motion.

Special Forces Operatives

Responsible for the most urgent, clandestine, and sensitive operations in the military, servicemen and women in the Army's Special Forces division don't go into the field without thousands of hours of training, simulated combat, and real-world experience.

Having run hundreds of missions, real or simulated, the caudate nuclei of these operatives are well-honed and stuffed to the brim with gigabytes of information about battle formations, room-clearing techniques, and body language cues.

This highly-specialized expertise allows them to enter an enemy's base and intuitively know the general layout of the building as well as where hostiles are likely to be posted. They can move from room to room relying on intuition rather than conscious reason to tell that there are, for example, three or four people on the other side of a door - or that their main target is likely moving to the roof to escape by helicopter.

Chess

With a reputation as some of the most intelligent people in the world, chess grandmasters often rely on intuition during play.

While more casual players may need 5 minutes to think through their move as well as the moves of their opponent, speed chess players have no such luxury.

With only 30 minutes total to execute 40 or more moves, speed chess grandmasters have to be the best of the best, and train their caudate nucleus to inherently understand their opponents goals, tactics, and future moves in a matter of seconds.

Business

Some of the most influential businesspeople in the world rely on their extensive expertise in their industry to supply them the intuition they need to operate in an environment that often doesn't give them the time to crack open a textbook.

For example, say a CEO's competitor just slashed prices by 50% the day before the launch of a new and improved product, meaning that customers will flock to the competitor's store while the CEO's new product sits untouched on the shelves. She doesn't have the time or opportunity to study supply costs and the impact on the competitor's revenue that the price slash will have.

She has to use their intuition to tell them that, given the size of the price slash, the only possible explanation is that the competitor is losing money. They might even have a seemingly innate understanding of how long their competitor can keep their prices that low.

Knowing this, all the CEO has to do is delay the product launch by that amount of time, squeezing competitor profits until they give up.

How to Boost Your Intuition

If you want to increase your intuition in a specific field, there really is only one way to do it: Practice, practice, practice.

Learn as much as you can about your field, hobby, sport, or whatever it is that you want to become a master at. Go over thousands of real-world scenarios until you internalize them. Your brain will take care of the rest.

Mental health care needs to be a prerequisite. Your brain can't convert your working memory of strategy and planning to its more permanent processes if something keeps getting in the way. Talk therapy can be a great way to clear your mind and ensure it stays as healthy as possible while you continue to grow personally and professionally.

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