Things You Can Do Without Thinking: One Way Neuroscience Supports Women's Intuition

Friday, January 03, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under General

What Are Voluntary Actions?

Most people are familliar with voluntary actions--or things that we do on purpose--as well as the rational decision-making that drives those behaviors.

But, the human animal is able to respond using conscious thought (thoughts that we are aware of) as well as subconscious processes (those that we are unaware of).

What can you do without thinking? Turns out a heck of a lot.

Subconscious Actions

Subconscious drives usually come with automatic physical responses, from panic to reflexively closing your eyes when a child's finger is on its way to your cornea.

And sometimes bigger things. Way bigger.

When my friend's son was just over eighteen months old, he began climbing: high and fast. One day, she turned her back for a moment to toss some laundry in a drawer while he sat on the floor behind her, looking at some books. Shirts and pants done, she turned back to the bookcase.

She has no recollection of the next moments, but she was suddenly sitting on the floor, holding him in her arms. She doesn't remember seeing him fall, nor does she recall thinking about catching him, but she did. It was a situation where there was no time for deductive reasoning.

Ever heard a mother say, "I barely have time to think?" Yeah, we're fucking serious.

The Real Meaning of "Intuitive"

Intuition, or the "gut reaction", is one of the mechanisms through which our body tells us how to respond without cognitive thought or logical reasoning. Dr. David Eagleman is a neuroscientist focused on explaining these processes. In his book Incognito, Eagleman notes that subconscious mind is able to process information at faster rates than the conscious mind. In study after study, individuals show elevated sympathetic nervous system arousal well before they should have been able to identify patterns or risks, say during card games1.

In other words, people can feel that something is amiss well before they can think it logically. If you're playing poker with a racing heart, or a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach, you might want to tap out until the next ante.

But it's more than risks during cards. Unexplained revulsion during a first date, or the very common experience of discomfort in the presence of sociopaths, is a part of this same process. We have an innate sensitivity to things that we can't consciously recognize. Tiny twinges in facial expressions, a subtle color change in the face of the person across from us, or a sound we aren't even aware that we heard, all have the ability to trigger our anxiety systems. Intuition tells us to respond well before we even understand--if we ever do--what it is we're responding to.

It's like those little hairs on your neck that stand up in alert when someone you haven't yet seen is looking at you. For our ancestors, listening to their gut was more a way of life. If the dude looking at you was a tiger, you couldn't wait until you saw him to bolt. Once you locked eyes, it was already too late.

Mothers especially have much to gain through intuitive processes, particularly because of the higher costs associated with pregnancy and childrearing, This may be one reason that our sensitivity to minute details is more developed than men. Instinctively knowing which care providers were safe for our children, or which mate was better for us, would have been a great advantage at any point in history. If nothing else, it's a huge time saver, just like that little tingle in the back of your brain that tells you when your eight-year-old--or your husband--is lying.

This intuitive process, and its ability to detect threats, may trigger physical responses besides a racing heart or an internal "knowing". Those automatic, subconscious stress responses may also lead to automatic, reflexive action, say when you have to catch a child who has decided to scale a bookshelf like a cracked-out spider monkey.

Today, we are often led to believe that intuition doesn't exist at all. But your body isn't broken. It is uniquely and innately capable of threat detection on levels we are taught to ignore.

Listen to yourself, even if the tiny voice you hear just tells you to embrace dark chocolate. Maybe especially then.

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Topic-Relevant Resources

If you're interested in the way the brain works, this book gives a great neuroscience run down.

Repressed: An Ash Park Novel (#3)
Not all monsters wear masks.