Photo by  Yeshi Kangrang  on  Unsplash

Photo by Yeshi Kangrang  on Unsplash

This article suggests that the term ‘intuition’ covers a range of different types of prompting from the unconscious. The promptings referred to here scratch the surface of what I think are an enormous range of creative functions which take place outside the tightly focused beam of ‘conscious’ thought. However, discussion of a few at least gives a slightly more nuanced view than a simple binary division into ‘conscious’ and ‘unconscious’.

Here is the definition of intuition from the Oxford dictionary )


  • 1[mass noun] The ability to understand something instinctively, without the need for conscious reasoning.
  • ‘we shall allow our intuition to guide us’
  • More example sentences
  • Synonyms
  1. 1.1[count noun]A thing that one knows or considers likely from instinctive feeling rather than conscious reasoning.
  2. ‘your insights and intuitions as a native speaker are positively sought’
  3. More example sentences
  4. Synonyms


Late Middle English (denoting spiritual insight or immediate spiritual communication): from late Latin intuitio(n-), from Latin intueri consider (see intuit).

“The ability to understand something instinctively” seems to be a pretty good summing up of the general perception of what intuition is.

This would seem to be supported by investigative work done comparing intuitive decision-making with a considered application of rational logic as well expressed in Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow”.

In this excerpt, Khaneman describes the metaphor he uses to describe the two ‘agents’ in the mind, System 1 and System 2.

I describe mental life by the metaphor of two agents, called System 1 and System 2, which respectively produce fast and slow thinking. I speak of the features of intuitive and deliberate thought as if they were traits and dispositions of two characters in your mind. In the picture that emerges from recent research, the intuitive System 1 is more influential than your experience tells you, and it is the secret author of many of the choices and judgments you make.”

(Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow (p. 13). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.)

The problem with this definition of system one and system two is that it defines conscious rational thinking (system one) as one thing and unconscious thinking as one thing.

But the unconscious and its influences are made up of a wide variety of different types of impulse arising in different parts of the nervous system and the brain and having very different qualities.

Additionally, there is the problem whether the range of what is ‘conscious’ or not may shift and change like the breeze.

Kahneman actually acknowledges this to some extent when he refers to Kleins several decades of work on intuition and how it works. Klein’s work is detailed in his valuable book “The Power of Intuition” published by DoubleDay. The figure below is taken from page 23.

Klein takes the position that intuition works through very rapid pattern matching with large amounts of accumulated experiences in memory. Aspects of these are then modelled to produce something as close to the circumstances under consideration as possible. This then prompts the sudden emergence of a fully formed and entirely appropriate response to complex circumstances.

Also from page 23 of the same book:

Intuition is the way we translate our experiences into judgements and decisions. It’s the ability to make decisions by using patterns to recognize what’s going on in a situation and to recognize the typical action script with which to react. Once experienced decision makers see the pattern, any decision they have to make is usually obvious.”


The more patterns and action scripts we have available, the more expertise we have, and the easier it is to make decisions”

The example often quoted from Klein’s work is of the senior fireman who suddenly instructed his team to get out of a room where they were fighting a fire mere seconds before the floor collapsed. Under exhaustive questioning by Klein and his team the lieutenant in question agreed that the process by which he had arrived at the conclusion to leave the room, had been a lightning fast review of a vast array of memories which had resulted in this logical conclusion to get everyone out of the room. He had originally described it to himself as ESP.

I’m referencing Malcolm Gladwell’s recounting of this story in his book “Blink” in this case (the story and Gladwell’s comments are on pages 121–123 of the Kindle edition). The significant observation Gladwell makes is:

The fireman’s internal computer effortlessly and instantly found a pattern in the chaos. But surely the most striking fact about that day is how close it all came to disaster. Had the lieutenant stopped and discussed the situation with his men, had he said to them, let’s talk this over and try to figure out what’s going on, had he done, in other words, what we often think leaders are supposed to do to solve difficult problems, he might have destroyed his ability to jump to the insight that saved their lives.”

Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (pp. 123–124). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Klein himself describes the barriers which exist to using intuition with a story:

Consider a former executive I know, a man who headed a very large organization. He was known for doing meticulous work. He rose through the hierarchy and eventually was appointed to run a division. And that’s when everyone realized that his meticulous attention to detail had a down side — he wasn’t willing to use his intuition to make decisions. He had to gather more and more data. He had to weigh all the pros and cons of each option. He had to delay and agonize and drive his organization crazy. He never missed any essential deadlines but his daily indecision sapped morale and made for lost opportunities. After a decade of mismanagement, he retired, to the relief of his colleagues and staff members. And then came the news — he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Fortunately medical science has developed a range of treatments for prostate cancer. Unfortunately patients have to make decisions about which treatment to accept. As I write this more than ten months have elapsed since the diagnosis and the former executive still hasn’t settled on a treatment. He is busy acquiring more data and assessing his options.”

In passing and in relation to the story of the fireman above, I will note that a lot of work has shown how easy it is for people to actually create memories especially in response to exhaustive questioning where they want to please the questioner (or even just be left alone). This by itself points to one of the great difficulties that we have in arriving at hard and fast conclusions about how something works on the basis of what subjects agree has happened.

But Klein has developed a worthwhile and interesting model of how intuition works in a particular way in various circumstances. This model suits the development of particular kinds of decision-making capability which Klein has been focused on for decades in environments such as business decision-making and the US Marine Corps.

Based on this model and further research he has developed some compelling techniques for improving the level of intuitive decision-making in both business and Armed Forces contexts. This has made his work difficult to ignore as far as those who would like to dismiss anything other than linear rational conscious thought as having the ability to deliver valuable and accurate assessments of complex circumstances.

Yet this still leaves us with a small circle of light in a very large area of darkness that is the unconscious.

It is clear from evidence in neuroscience and psychology that the unconscious consists of a number of diverse sources of impulse and influence.

In fact we are almost certainly only beginning to scratch the surface of how many different types of impulse and influence may be generated by different parts of our brains and nervous systems working either independently or in conjunction with one another in different combinations.

So at the very least we must acknowledge that the term intuition could be being applied to a wide range of different types of unconscious influence.

There is little doubt that what we refer to as the primitive brain centred around the amygdala is a major source of these impulses. And they are largely to do with survival, desire, procreation etcetera. I have described the types of qualities generally found in what we call the primitive brain elsewhere so won’t repeat it here. Sufficient to say that these influences are capable of radically distorting our conscious thought and this Kahneman’s work demonstrates extremely well.

But the singular focus on this source of influence and impulse completely fails to consider the operation of large parts of the rest of the brain which are also unconscious.

It completely fails to explain the often repeated descriptions (frequently from scientists themselves) of being able to frame a problem of great complexity dwell on it and effectively “program” the unconscious to solve it while sleeping. Something which is practised by many people with an embarrassing degree of success. At least it is embarrassing for the simplistic view that there is one rather unreliable mechanism which we can designate as the unconscious in juxtaposition to conscious logical thinking.

Against this background, in Liminal Coaching, we have developed a series of metaphorical scenarios designed to help stimulate processes such as solution creation.

In this case it seems to me to be highly likely that a great deal of very rapid pattern matching is involved but there are clearly, I think, innovative and creative elements as well which not only produce models that are an assembly of bits of previous memories but also are capable of producing completely new paradigms leading to the development of new patterns.

I might be tempted to put both Klein’s experience-based intuition and this solution creation capability in the subconscious part of the higher brain.

The term intuition also tends to ignore the phenomenon of savant calculators which seem to suggest further capabilities for ultra rapid, possibly parallel processed, calculation being performed either by the brain or by part of the nervous system. Yet it is quite possible that the same mechanism could be in play in some types of sudden insight.

Additionally there is all the neuroscience and psychological information around the function of the orbitofrontal cortex and its capacity for processing vast amounts of subconsciously perceived information about tones of voice, body language and micro-expressions on the faces of people we are talking with. In fact our subconscious does a fabulous job of processing vast amounts of data all the time. Were we to attempt to process this data through sequential conscious thought we would very rapidly find ourselves completely overwhelmed.

In his book “Liminal Thinking” Dave Gray references the work of neuroscientist Manfred Zimmerman:

A neuroscientist named Manfred Zimmermann estimates that our capacity for perceiving information is about 11 million bits per second. 1 That’s a lot, but it’s still a tiny fraction of the amount of information that’s potentially available in any situation.”

Gray, Dave. Liminal Thinking: Create the Change You Want by Changing the Way You Think (Kindle Locations 389–391). Rosenfeld Media. Kindle Edition.

Of this, only about 40 bits can be handled by conscious attention:

Zimmermann estimates that your conscious attention has a capacity of about 40 bits per second. That’s a tiny, tiny fraction of what you can perceive: 40 bits out of a potential 11 million. That’s 10,999,960 bits of information that you sense but don’t notice, every second. 2”

Gray, Dave. Liminal Thinking: Create the Change You Want by Changing the Way You Think (Kindle Locations 403–405). Rosenfeld Media. Kindle Edition.

So what happens to the rest?

Well the kind of subliminal thinking Klein describes in his work on intuition will surely be using gobs of that data.

The ‘thin slicing’ phenomena Gladwell explores in ‘Blink’ as well, and according to Daniel Goleman in his book “Social Intelligence”, there is a pretty darned handy megabit information processor in the Orbito-Frontal Cortex to add to this picture. Here is is his brief description of this part of the brain and how it is thought to function:

The OFC, positioned just behind and above the orbits of the eyes (hence the ‘’orbito-”), occupies. a strategic site: the junction of the uppermost part of the emotional centers and the lowest part of the thinking brain.if the brain were like a fist, the wrinkly cortex would be ‘roughly where the fingers are, the subcortical centers would be in the lower palm-and the OFC just where the two meet.

The OFC connects directly, neuron to neuron, three major regions of the brain: the cortex (or “thinking brain”), the amygdala (the trigger point for many emotional reactions), and the brain stem (the “reptilian” 1 zones for automatic response). This tight connection suggests a rapid and powerful linkage, one that facilitates instantaneous coordination of thought, feeling, and action. This neural autobahn swirls together low-road inputs from the emotional centers, the body, and the senses, and high-road lanes that find meaning in that data, creating the intentional plans that guide our actions.’ This linkage of top-of-the-brain cortical and lower subcortical regions makes the OFC a pivotal meeting point of high and low, an epicenter for making sense of the social world around us. By putting together our inner and outer experience, the OFC performs an instant social calculus, one that tells us haw we feel about the person we are with, how she feels about us, and what to do next in accord with how she responds.

There is evidence to show that the conclusions about what is being communicated about people’s honesty and their disposition that are developed unconsciously and presented to our conscious mind as “gut feel” are actually the majority of the time pretty accurate.

In fact then, without reliable harmonised inputs from a range of sources which are ‘unconscious’ not in the pre-frontal cortex, or are in ‘system 2’ if you will, we would be dead in the water in a heartbeat.

Incoming sensory data arrives at the limbic system and the amygdala first before getting routed to the higher brain.

Even before a sensory perception has reached the frontal lobes, where it enters conscious awareness and undergoes fine categorization, the amygdala has already branded it with a raw

emotional valence somewhere along a continuum from mildly interesting to “oh my God!” it activates the body and the rest of the brain in response to how significant it deems the stimulus to be to survival. “

from “Users Guide to the Brain” John J Ratey, M.D. Abacus 2001

There is no question that the perceptions from the orbitofrontal cortex can be coloured by the activity of this fundamental survival mechanism. If that mechanism is over-active or highly sensitised as a result of traumatic experience or high levels of stress then the colouration can be so extreme as to falsify the conclusions arrived at resulting in the transmission of threat responses which can override the functioning of the higher brain.

The point is that we can propose a provisional list of a variety of impulses which may currently all be labelled as “intuition” or for that matter functions of “system two”.

This list might look something like:

  • gut feel / orbitofrontal cortex
  • the limbic system survival responses (amygdala)
  • pattern matching circumstance analysis: unconscious higher brain
  • innovative solution creation — new paradigm generation: unconscious higher brain

This gives us four broad sources quite different from one another which could all be labelled at different times as intuition.

Here’s a rough drawing of what this might look like conceptually. Note this is not a physiological model but a concept map.

There is no doubt in my mind that these four rough categories are little more than a very basic list of a few of the functions our brains are capable of. However they do provide sufficient definition for us to be able to work in a practical way with them and in Liminal Coaching to develop particular types of activity and qualities of thinking as well as working to minimise unwarranted biasing of ‘higher’ types of intuitive and innovative processing from over-active amygdala responses.

These four types of impulse or affect from the unconscious could all, at different times, be labelled “intuition”, a collection of intuitions.

A ‘hunch’ of intuitions perhaps? (with thanks to all those contacts on Facebook who played the new collective pronoun game”)

Yet these four are only scratching the surface of what is going on in our brains. Here’s Ben Hayden Ph.D. writing in Psychology Today:

“… if you slice the brain down the middle like an avocado, you’ll see another half: subgenual cingulum (function unknown), midcingulum (function unknown), medial parietal (function unknown), retrosplenium (function unknown), and posterior cingulate cortex (function truly unknown).

That last one is the most mysterious so it’s my favorite. The posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) has been called the ‘dark energy of the brain.’ It consumes more calories than any other part of the brain (and the brain itself consumes a lot — 20% of the calories you eat). And we have no idea where that energy goes.

It’s the Cheshire Cat of brain areas. If you bring someone into the brain scanner, and have them do a task — any task — it turns off (that is, its neurons stop firing). Then, during that delay between trials, it turns on again, only to turn off when the task restarts.

And that’s about all we know for sure.”

So let’s be very clear about the limits of what we know and open to the enormous possible discoveries.

Finally to talk about conscious rational thought, even through scientific process as being devoid of any unconscious influence or colouration is to attempt to imbue conscious rational thought and scientific process with a supernatural power usually reserved for concepts of deity.

It just does not function in isolation from the other parts of ourselves and clarity of conscious logical thought may well be dependant on how well understood and nurtured the different, usually unconscious, parts of ourselves are.

In the Liminal Coaching approach we are not intending to make definitive statements about the nature of the brain and the mind, preferring to leave that exercise to those who think it is possible. Our approach embraces research and discovery of every type, in particular those discoveries that individual clients make themselves which is our primary concern. So our approach leaves the door open. We don’t tell our clients “you can’t be doing that because we don’t yet understand how it is possible”. On the contrary we help to create metaphoric scenarios which aim at enhancing what the client wants to do. After all it’s their brain.

For more information on how Liminal Coaching can improve intuitive functions request a free no obligation chat.

Mike Parker Liminal Coaching

1 There are complaints about the evolutionary biology accuracy in use of the term ‘reptilian’ as we are not descended from reptiles so we could use a different term to denote that same layer, for example ‘primitive brain’. The point is that the layered brain as a model is a useful and meaningful paradigm for understanding different broad areas of activity in the brain. The ongoing discussion in the relevant area of science as to the validity of McLean’s layered brain model is noted but Goleman’s use is valid and there is no reason not to use a model that continues to prove its practical usefulness.