Jewish Thought

Intuition – How Do You Know?

How Do You Know?
“I don’t know…I just have this gut feeling that it’s not a good idea.”  “Even though I can’t really explain it, I just know that this is the right thing for me now.”  “Something tells me that this is not going to work.”  Intuition.  It often figures in as a powerful part of one’s decision making process.  The existence of this sixth sense is taken for granted by the general populace and the world of professional psychology, according to a recent piece published by Live Science; but the inhabitants of the show-it-to-me-in-a-test-tube-or-I-won’t-believe-it world have long grappled with the question of if there really is such a thing as intuition. 
Finally, researchers carried out an experiment, published this past April in Psychological Science, that allowed them to measure intuition.  Or so they claim.  What was the test?
Participants were shown images of black-and-white dots moving on one side of a computer screen, while a flashing square of color was shown on the other side of the screen.  They were asked to determine if the dots were in general moving toward the left or toward the right.  One group was shown the aforementioned images with no extras, a second group with nice pictures subliminally embedded into the flashing square, and a third group with upsetting pictures subliminally embedded into the flashing square. 
Because the nice, positive-emotion inducing pictures – such as a cute baby or puppy – and the upsetting, negative-emotion inducing pictures – such as a gun or a venomous snake – were flashed at speeds too fast to be consciously perceived, the effect they could have on the participants could only be subliminal.  In other words, the images could only register as “nonconscious emotional information”, the influence of which is the definition these researchers employed for intuition. 
So what were the results?  Those participants that were subject to the positive subliminal images were more accurate in determining which way the dots were moving, in addition to demonstrating more rapid response time and higher confidence in their choice.
Now for our own survey.  How many of us would agree with the assumption of the researchers who carried out this experiment? 
I am no psychology expert, but my gut feeling tells me that something about it is off.  To clarify, they define intuition as the “influence of nonconscious emotional information”. 
According to them, a person may have some positive or negative underlying emotion swirling around inside – of which the individual is completely unaware – and it is having an impact on the aptitude of his or her decision making process.  And that’s intuition. 
Really?  That’s all there is to it? 
I think that most of us probably have this intuitive feeling that that is not at all what intuition is all about.  To sharpen the point, let’s consider for a moment the title-holders of intuition masters: women, particularly of the Jewish-mother variety. 
Hamodia once featured an article by Rabbi Dovid Kaplan entitled, A Plea to Mothers.  Rabbi Kaplan marvels at the feminine ability to intuitively know so many things that can take men many minutes or even hours of intellectual reasoning to recognize.  Even more is that a woman’s intuition can often trump all those hours of logical analysis. 
Think: you’ve spent the past hour coming up with a fantastic idea of how to motivate your nine-year-old son to do better in his studies, only to be dashed by your wife’s assertion, “I don’t know…I’m not sure that approach is what Yanki really needs.” 
In such scenarios, men with less experience, Rabbi Kaplan noted, will tend to be more argumentative, defensive, and bull-headed.  In a word: stubborn.  But the wiser, more seasoned husband has already learned to greatly respect his wife’s binah yeseirah (intuition), and he lends it a great deal of weight (parenthetically, Rabbi Kaplan’s plea to mothers at the end of the article was that they should get their husbands to read it). 
Of course, the women reading this will be vigorously nodding their heads to themselves, and those of us men who can relate to what Rabbi Kaplan wrote will also agree that this type of intuition is anything but a mere “influence of nonconscious emotional information”.
So, then, what is intuition?
I’m not sure, but I think I may have an idea.  I once loaned a recording of HaRav Yaakov Weinberg zt”l to a friend of mine.  That particular shiur addressed, amongst other things, the capacity of rhetoric to influence people’s behaviors. 
HaRav Weinberg’s illustration of this was a speech given by Abba Hillel Silver.  Silver served for a time as the president of the Zionist Organization of America.  At a certain point, his incorrigibly arrogant way of doing things aroused the ire not only of those not involved in the organization, but even of his own people.  At the end of a particular year, the shakers and movers of the ZOA were looking forward to a gratifying ouster of its soon-to-be erstwhile president.  “People of all types streamed in from all over,” HaRav Weinberg recalled, “to witness this event.  We just could not wait to see this megalomaniac being thrown out.  The place was absolutely packed.  There was standing room only.” 
As the outgoing president of the ZOA, Silver was slated to give a speech, the purpose of which was to report upon and summarize the accomplishments and challenges of the past year.  “His oratory was so powerful;” HaRav Weinberg reminisced, “when he wanted us to laugh, we laughed.  When he wanted us to cry, we cried.  The whole time he had us on the edge of our toes. I knew what he was doing, but I reacted along with everyone else.  And when he finished,” HaRav Weinberg emphatically concluded, “the entire governing body of the ZOA unanimously voted him in for another term as president, and they danced a hora!”
Well, this story left my friend perturbed as to how we are to understand an individual’s ability to discern between right and wrong.  So he posed his query to our rebbi, HaRav Aharon Lopiansky shlita, who answered that “every person has a point of truth within”.
Although I cannot presume to understand the depths of how intuition functions, I believe that this “point of truth within” has a lot to do with it.  The Chovos Ha’Levavos writes in his introduction that the mandate of unadulterated seichel (intelligence) is on par with Torah mandate.  After all, didn’t Hashem create us b’tzelem Elokim (G-d’s Image)?  We have a neshama (soul) – hewn, as it were, from beneath the Kisei Ha’Kavod (Throne of G-d)– and it is the most exalted component of all creation. 
Intuition, I believe, is to be in touch with that true, inner reality of self.  That part of us that is closer to G-d than anything else in the entire universe, spiritual realms included. 
Of course, we cannot do that without the highly-informed and rigorous analytical reasoning and logical deduction born of Torah study.  In fact, that is the primary focus of our thinking and decision making processes, and that which enables us to build the direction of our moral compass in life.  That is as much intuitively obvious as it is scripturally so. 
And beyond the inherent need for robust text-book based knowledge and deduction, there is also the fact that intuition without rational wisdom is not a feasible proposition. 
As Dr. Robert Sutton, professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University whose specialty is the research of organizational behavior, wrote in Work Matters, there is “a huge pile of research on cognitive biases…that show gut feelings are highly suspect.  [For example,] people have a very hard time remembering evidence that contradicts their beliefs.” 
Dr. Sutton proceeds to outline his own take on the intersection between evidence-based thinking and intuitive thinking: “Intuition works best in the hands of wise people.”  Well said.  Indeed, it is when rational deduction and intuitive understanding are interlocked in an ongoing, dynamic relationship that one has the greatest probability at arriving at truthful conclusions. 
Logical, evidence-based thinking provides the general guidance, direction, and fundamental axioms by which we set the moral compass of life.  Intuition is the primal, inseverable point of truth within that serves as the lighthouse when skies grow dark and the tempest heaves and swells.  Rational thinking is not infallible. 
As the Talmud in Masechet Eiruvin (13b) says that there was a talmid chacham in Yavneh who was able to come up with 150 ways to declare a sheretz (“crawling creature”) pure!  Intuition ensures that one does not manipulate the power of logical argumentation to posit theories that are but a product of one’s own bias and petty interests.  And the converse is just as true.  Without a wealth of Torah knowledge and understanding built on the foundations of rigorous analysis to serve as one’s baseline life-manual and point of axiomatic reference, the vagaries of man will withhold him from intuiting correctly.  It is both a supplementary and complementary relationship.
If there is one thing, though, that we can cull from the researchers’ experiment it is this: our power of reasoning, or, if you will, our ability to activate it – whether rational or intuitive – tends to work a lot better when we are in a positive frame of mind. 
As the Talmud in Masechet Shabbat (30b) underscores: “When Rabbah was about to begin a shiur, he would first relate something of a humorous nature (to open up the students’ hearts – Rashi -), and thereafter he would assume a serious demeanor and begin the shiur.”  So if you have some serious thinking or decision-making to do and you’re not in the best frame of mind, put it off for a different hour.

With Kind permission from Hamodia


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