Neuroscience

Scientists Say Intuition Is Real, Based On More Than A Gut Feeling

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For the first time, researchers have come up with a way to measure intuition scientifically. What they found demonstrates how powerful a gut feeling can really be.

Why It Matters

Whether you're a poker player with a mediocre hand who just gets the hunch that you shouldn't fold, or a soldier with the feeling that something isn't quite right about a vehicle up ahead, everyone has experienced how intuition can help us make the right decision. But although everyone from philosophers to neuroscientists have pondered its meaning, scientists have had a tough time finding evidence for intuition's existence. In the past, all researchers could do was read people's answers on surveys about how they felt while making decisions.

But for a 2016 study in the journal Psychological Science, researchers devised an ingenious way to measure this nebulous feeling scientifically. On one half of a computer screen, they showed participants black-and-white images of moving dots, which they were told to watch so they could identify which way they were moving. On the other half of the screen, a bright square of color flashed at regular intervals. Unbeknownst to the participants, the researchers had embedded the flashing square with a subliminal image that was designed to evoke a certain emotion: for some participants, it was an image of a puppy or a baby, triggering a positive emotional response. For others, it was an image of a gun or a snake, designed to produce a negative response.

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Why It's Powerful

Even though the participants didn't consciously know that the flashing images existed, they had an impact. Those who saw the emotionally charged images—whether they were positive or negative—not only determined which direction the dots were moving more accurately, but they did it more quickly and with a higher level of confidence than those who saw scrambled control images.

Importantly, the biggest benefit of intuition came when the dot-moving task was at its most challenging. The study authors suggested that this means we use intuition the most when conscious information is scarce. In other words, when you have no idea what to do, your gut will be there to help out.

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