Intuition has been a key survival tool for many millennia, and has helped multitudinous animals live to see another day. But what is intuition? How does it work, and how can we apply it so that we may live more freely and prevent violence in the first place?
People describe intuition as a “gut feeling”, “a hunch”, or they describe it with statements such as, “I just knew” or “I could feel it”. In reality, intuition is anything other than a simple hunch – there are very real and very specific things happening in your brain that lead to these feelings.
The stem of the word ‘intuition’ comes from the Latin, tueri, meaning to guard or to protect. This is the sole purpose of intuition, to keep us safe. Over the course of thousands of years, our intuition has become dulled because we no longer have the same urgent need for it that our cave-dwelling ancestors did. As our forebrain developed and our cerebral cortex grew larger, we started to rely more on reason, problem solving and language skills in order to avoid and/or resolve conflict. As a result, we began to not only rely less and less on our intuition, but to actively override it with judgment and reasoning. In Gavin de Becker’s book The Gift of Fear, he writes, “We think conscious thought is somehow better, when in fact, intuition is soaring flight compared to the plodding of logic. Nature’s greatest accomplishment, the human brain, is never more efficient or invested than when its host is at risk.”
The subconscious part of our brain picks up all the information in our environment – every sound, every shadow, every little detail. Because our brains would be on information overload if all of this filtered through to our conscious brain, much of it stays in the subconscious and we aren’t typically made aware of it. Think of when you take the same route home from work day after day. You don’t often notice the rows of houses or other mundane or trivial details on your way home because you’ve seen them many times; however, if there was suddenly a new fence on one of those homes, you would be more likely to notice this.
Your intuition works in the same way. Sometimes your unconscious mind picks up information before it makes its way into the conscious brain – perhaps you smell something different, you see a bizarre shadow or some light, you pick up on someone’s body language ever so slightly (you’re brain is picking up something different, unexpected in your environment, similar to that new fence on your route home) – and now you feel uneasy, but you don’t know why. This is because your unconscious mind (where your intuition resides), has picked up information or behavior that does not fit into our understanding of what is normal or what is to be expected in your situation. When you feel uneasy or uncomfortable, it’s because your brain is giving you an immediate, lighting fast “POSSIBLE DANGER” response that your conscious brain hasn’t had time to process yet. The only thing that your brain knows when your intuition has kicked in is that something is wrong, but you’re just not quite sure exactly what yet.
The unfortunate thing is that we are the only animals on the face of the planet that continuously not only fail to explore, but actively disregard, this message. “Oh, he looks so nice, he wouldn’t harm me”; “I’m walking through a good neighborhood, no one would give me trouble here”; “I’m too old/young for anyone to bother with me.” These justifications only act as a disservice because they immediately discount the possibility of violence, and therefore do not allow us to be prepared.
“The strange way people evaluate risk sheds some light on why we often choose not to avoid danger,” deBecker argues. “We tend to give our full attention to risks that are beyond our control (air crashes, nuclear plant disasters) while ignoring those we feel in charge of (dying from smoking, poor diet, car accidents), even though the latter are for more likely to harm us.”[ii] That being said, we will tolerate familiar risks over strange ones.
How to Develop Your Intuition
Evaluate this uneasy sensation – why do you feel uneasy? Is it that there are a group of big guys walking toward you on the sidewalk at 1am? Evaluate further. Are they joking and talking amongst themselves, or are they looking at you, re-grouping to fan out around you, indicating toward you with gestures or nods, reaching into their pockets to retrieve what could possibly be a weapon? Those are signals that these men may mean to harm you.
After your evaluation, if you have decided that there is a real threat, then it is time to take action. Perhaps you want to change what side of the street you are walking on, or duck into a store, or call your husband/wife and tell them where you are and to pick you up immediately. If the threat is immediate and serious, call 911 – even if those who mean to possibly attack you are scared off, the police will be happy that you called for help instead of having to tend to someone with serious injuries (or worse) that could have easily been avoided if they had just listened to their intuition and called for help in time.
However, our intuitive sense can let us down in two ways: 1) when we disregard or override it, as discussed earlier, but also when 2) your brain is loaded with inaccurate or incomplete data. If you are failing to make complete use of your senses when you are out and about by yourself, how can your brain let you know when there is trouble? For instance, when you are listening to your iPod, you can’t hear someone sneaking up behind you. If you are walking with your head down, eyes focused on your phone screen, you can’t be scanning your environment for people approaching, bizarre shadows or lights, suspicious body language, or other things that should set off alarm bells. You must keep your senses unfettered and open to picking up information, particularly when you are by yourself and most vulnerable to trouble.
It’s unfortunate how often both men and women disregard their intuitive feelings out of the fear of looking silly or being embarrassed or hurting someone’s feelings by taking actions to safeguard ourselves. We have this gift for a reason – learn to use it effectively!
Intuition and Living without Anxiety
Intuition should set you free from a life of worry, anxiety and 24/7 vigilance. Proper use of our intuition means that you can calm down when walking through an unknown neighborhood if you are constantly evaluating your feelings. Is there a reason for you to feel scared? If not, then you can remain alert, but calm. Your anxiety will eventually subside when you learn to consciously and continuously evaluate your uneasiness. Unfortunately, we live in a society that loves making crime, murder, violence and other acts of aggression a constant news focus, when in reality, crime rates are at the lowest they’ve been in almost three decades in many parts of the US and Great Britain, according to The Economist. [iii] It makes sense that so many people are afraid when we are inundated with these stories day after day, year after year, decade after decade.
- Keep your senses open and available so that your brain can pick up all your environment’s information
- If your intuition does begin to act up, evaluate why you feel this way.
- If after you evaluation you still feel as though you need to act, do so! Don’t override your intuition out of the fear of looking silly.
- Everyone is intuitive
- Your intuition has only one function – to keep you safe. Learn to heed and evaluate its signals, and your intuition will become more refined.
[i] de Becker, Gavin, The Gift of Fear, (NY: Dell Publishing, 1997), p. 25.
[ii] Ibid, p. 31.
[iii] D.K., “Why is Crime Falling?”, The Economist, July 23, 2013, http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2013/07/economist-explains-16