In the early 1780s, German philosopher Immanuel Kant set his formidable mind to the question of how humans come to understand themselves and the world around them. His conclusion was that there is much we know that we understand independent of any experience or tangible evidence – something he referred to as ‘a priory knowledge’.
A more common way to describe this sort of in-built, deeply felt, unexplainable knowledge is as a hunch, a sixth sense, or a plain old intuition.
Defined as understanding or knowledge that is unrelated to conscious thought, observation or reason, intuition is hard to pin down because it is essentially metaphysical or spiritual in nature. Even the most rational will acknowledge the times in their lives when they ‘just knew’ something was off with their child or amiss in a business deal. Experience tends to prove that these intuitions are a warning we ignore at our peril.
To this point, I’ve always found it fascinating that we often use intuition when making consequential decisions while we tend to approach comparatively frivolous choices using methodical logic. For instance, when it came to purchasing our family home a number of years ago, I spent a fraction of the time weighing logical options that I did in planning a 4-week European adventure the previous year. In the end, while my wife and I had done our homework, we ended up buying the house that just ‘felt right’ when we inspected it.
Our intuitive sense is especially valuable when the stakes are high and the pressure is on. In a study reviewed by the British Journal of Psychology, researchers explored real-world case studies of intuition’s power to help people make split-second choices. One example stood out in particular. It described the decision by a Formula One driver who braked sharply coming into a hairpin curve for no particular reason except that it just felt like what he needed to do. Unbeknownst to the driver, there was a pileup just around the corner and had he failed to brake, he would have certainly made a bad situation considerably worse.
In another example of how powerful intuition can be, consider the decision by a banking executive named Mike Smith in November 2008 that saved his life. As he was checking out of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai, India, Smith was informed he had ample time before his flight was due to depart and was invited to relax in the hotel bar for a complimentary drink. For a reason that even he couldn’t describe, Smith reported having an uneasy feeling and so decided to head to the airport and wait for his flight there. He had only just got into the car and driven around the corner when terrorists stormed into the foyer where he had been standing moments before.
None of this is to diminish the role of rationality or the cognitive sciences. However, acknowledging the power of intuition does point to a metaphysical reality that scientists often struggle to quantify and therefore accept. At best, most neuroscientists put intuition down to a yet-to-be discovered brain mechanism that is responsible for immediate cognition without thought.
The reflections of New York Times bestselling author and law professor Bob Goff on his own spirituality explain the sense of this intuition well. As a committed Christian, Goff describes the importance of discerning the will of God. In his book Love Does, Goff admitted that while “God doesn't speak to me with a voice to make audio needles move, there are times when I've sensed something down deep, almost like a tuning fork has just been pinged in my soul.” This is a perspective on intuition that many people of faith can strongly relate to, myself included.
Similarly, the Islamic concept of intuition, often referred to as ‘hadas’, is related to having prophetic knowledge. The 12th century Persian philosopher Siháb al Din-al Suhrawadi built on Plato’s concepts of implicit knowledge to define intuition as insight that had come as a result of illumination or mystical contemplation.
But even outside the spiritual realm, intuition is a force to be reckoned with. The famous Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan once said that he would ‘simply know’ the solution to a complex equation or number problem and it would then be a matter of proving why this was the case. This sense of correctness or knowing isn’t something that Ramanujan arrived at through a linear or methodical process of thinking. It was something he just knew with certainty and conviction.
While we all know the sensation of knowing something ‘in our bones,’ only recently has the nature of intuition been scientifically provable thanks to the work of psychologist and neuroscientist Joel Pearson and his team at the University of NSW’s Future Minds Lab. Not only were Pearson and his team scientifically observe how intuition works, but also to formulate a toolkit to help people decide when they should trust their intuition, and when it is likely to be unreliable. For instance, Pearson warns against relying on intuition when you lack expertise in a situation, when emotions are running high, when probabilities or certainty of outcomes is low.
While its workings are yet to be explained scientifically, the lived experience of human beings proves the often unexplainably reliable nature of intuition. Even the most logical and rational of geniuses, Albert Einstein, recognized the often-overlooked role of intuition when he said, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” We may not be able to explain it, but we can and do trust it – much more frequently than we think.
Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.
He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 9 books. His most recent book The New Now examines the 10 trends that will dominate a post-COVID world and how to prepare for them now.
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 Burton, R. 2008, On Being Certain, St Martin’s Press, New York, p. 89.
 Elejalde-Ruiz, A. 2012, ‘Going with your gut’, Chicago Tribune, 13 June.
 O’Keeffe, A. 2011, Hardwired Humans, Roundtable Press, Sydney, pp. 61-62
 Burton, R. 2008, On Being Certain, St Martin’s Press, New York, p. xiv
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 Burton, R. 2008, On Being Certain, St Martin’s Press, New York, p. 67.
 Hooton, A. 2021, ‘Sixth sense: the science behind intuition’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 24 April.
 Burton, R. 2008, On Being Certain, St Martin’s Press, New York, p. 67.