The brain is a strange organ. I have a good sense of humor – love to hear/read joke, and also tell them (if they’re good). But if you ask me to tell you a good joke that I heard or read recently, I can’t do it. However, ask me to tell you a joke on any specific topic that you choose – a joke I heard years ago will pop up and I have no problem relating it on the spot.
Notice that I started off with “the brain” and not “my brain”. Although there are some minor differences in capabilities between people, overall the human brain works basically the same way for everyone. In the case of memory, passive always beats active i.e., we remember things a lot better when given a “prompt” than when we forced to dredge something up without some external aid.
Which brings me (very circuitously) to the topic and title of this essay. Every one of us has had experiences where we “intuitively” thought something would happen. Let’s leave for now the fact that we “intuit” lots of things and selectively (and conveniently) forget those that didn’t come to pass). What exactly is this “intuition”?
It does not exist – at least not in the usual way it’s understood, as something “innately” natural to some people as opposed to others. Indeed, if I can make a pun, it’s a figment of our imagination.
So what is “intuition”? Simple: knowledge (mostly based on personal experience) that we are not aware that we have. Brain research has now conclusively proven that the brain is a “prediction machine” – constantly thinking about “what is about to happen” to prepare itself (and you) for the immediately upcoming environmental challenges. That could be when to cross the street based on the oncoming traffic, all the way to how much risk to take every minute in a Covid-19 environment.
Our brain is doing this on a second-to-second basis, outside of our consciousness. In fact, the situation is even weirder – and some would say “scarier” – than that. It turns out that when we have to make a decision (not just trying to “predict” the very-near-term future), our brain makes the decision four-tenths of a second before we are even aware that it/we have made that decision!
Indeed, it is at this point that we arrive at a semantic conundrum. If our brain is deciding things before we consciously “make the decision”, who is in control of whom? Indeed, can one separate the brain (or mind, if you wish) from “us”? Who am “I” if not my brain? And if my conscious thoughts are somehow different from my unconscious decision-making process, who is in charge of the matter? That’s another intentional pun, but serious too, because are decisions undertaken within the organic brain “matter”, or are they a function of the metaphysical “mind”?
Intuitively, we want to think that “we” are in charge – but that’s precisely where intuition goes astray. The knowledge underlying our “intuition” is somewhere beyond our conscious sense – almost like a computer’s external hard drive, separate from the CPU and internal memory disk.
Why, then, do some people seem to have a better intuition than others? They don’t; they just have more “hidden” (from themselves) experience and knowledge – or are better at forgetting all the times that their intuition did not materialize!
To be sure, all this is distressing because raises the question of whether we are really in charge of ourselves – indeed, whether there is such a thing as free will, at least in the extended sense of the term. In any case, the next time you have a hunch about something about to occur, don’t say “my intuition tells me”, but rather: “my brain predicts…”.