The limbic centre of our brain is ancient; it is the repository for both genetic memory (fear the dark, fear snakes) and learned experiences. The limbic system allows us to react to stimuli by pulling out related memories from the hypothalamus and filtering them through the amygdala, centre for reactive emotions. If you had a bad experience with a tattooed man in your past and meet someone new with tattoos, it's this process that will give you a negative bias. It's an incredibly useful tool, but it doesn't allow us to overcome reactive urges - that's where the neocortex comes in.
The neocortex permits us to apply executive function, overriding instinct, take risks, innovate. This is the part of our noggin that humans have to a larger degree than other species and has allowed for social development, science, etc.
The best decisions, of course, are made through a balanced approach of reaction and foresight. It's a tricky line to walk, but one we can do when we do it consciously.
“Dig up all the information you can, then go with your instincts. We all have a certain intuition, and the older we get, the more we trust it… I use my intellect to inform my instinct. Then I use my instinct to test all this data. ‘Hey, instinct, does this sound right? Does it smell right, feel right, fit right?
General Colin Powell
The idea of using intuition when making important decisions is greatly frowned upon in business.
We’ve been taught that conscious reasoning alone is the sure-fire way of choosing the best course of action, and that our intuition is impulsive and inherently misguiding. Stand up in a meeting and say, “I feel this is the right decision even though the financials don’t fully back me up,“ and expect an immediate backlash.
While we’ve all learned to be publicly dismissive about intuition, I’m absolutely certain you can quickly recall an experience when an inner voice steered you away from a disastrous outcome. Is it logical that this voice doesn’t also speak up when workplace dilemmas need resolution? Is that inner guidance untrustworthy in our jobs but fully reliable in our personal lives?
I’m guessing you have a hunch on the answers to both these questions, but if your mind isn’t yet fully able to reconcile the conflict, I have good news. Science is coming to your aid.
According to Dr. Rollin McCraty, Director of Research at the Institute of HeartMath, human intuition – flashes of insight that can’t be judged by reasoning – is real. More importantly, there’s compelling new research that proves leaders who act on their intuition achieve greater success.
Through the research performed by HeartMath and other organizations, we now know there are three unique types of intuition:
(1) Implicit Knowledge: We learn something and forget we learned it. While we’re taking a shower or are out for a run, it sneaks up from our unconscious into our conscious. Voila, the insight we need in the moment pops into our heads. About 95% of what’s written about intuition relates to “implicit knowledge.”
(2) Energetic Sensitivity: Our nervous system literally is sensitive to environmental signals (it’s like a big antenna). Psychologist, Gary Klein, tells the story of a team of fire fighters that entered a house where the kitchen was ablaze. While hosing down the fire, the commander suddenly heard himself yell, “Let’s get out of here!” without knowing why. The kitchen floor collapsed immediately after– but not before all firefighters escaped. Only after the experience did the captain recall the impressions that prompted his “sixth sense of danger.” The fire had gotten unusually hot and quiet, and his intuition discerned it.
(3) Non-Local Intuition: “Everyone has an experience of it,” says McCraty. “You drive down a road you travel all the time and have the sudden impulse to slow down. As you round the corner, you see a small child in the street or an accident that just has happened. In situations like these, the heart senses the nature of events ahead of time, before they actually occur…. This intuition stuff about unknown future events that you cannot explain through implicit learning is nevertheless real. The central core of every religion on the planet is the heart is our primary access point to wisdom and courage. Science is now supporting what’s always been believed.”
For many years, the Australian Graduate School Of Entrepreneurship has been studying repeat entrepreneurs, people with long careers who’ve built businesses multiple times with great success.
In looking for common characteristics, the researchers discovered something amazing – and especially useful for business leaders. 80% of the entrepreneurs acknowledged relying on their intuition when making important decisions. When weighing their options, in other words, they relied on their cognitive capacities and intuitive capacities – heart and mind.
In his recent book, Onward, Starbucks CEO and hugely successful entrepreneur, Howard Schultz, admits to routinely consulting his intuition and to taking frequent action on the guidance it gives him. Overruling financial analysis that strongly panned both these ideas, Schultz chose to remove a very popular breakfast item from the menu and to close all Starbucks’ stores for three hours of employee training. Had he relied on his mind alone to guide these actions, he never would have pursued them. Perhaps not coincidentally, Starbucks’ stock is up 400% over the past decade while the S & P 500 average return is a mere 60%.
As Daniel Kahneman points out in Thinking Fast And Slow, making important decisions tied to intuition alone can prove disastrous. But what science now has proved is that we have two sources of human intelligence, and letting them both have a say is a very wise move.