The Sixth Sense — Intuition (and why there is nothing magical about it)

Ever since I came across “intuitives” (Jung/Myers-Briggs) I have been wondering about this “magical thing” called intuition. I have always been fascinated by the idea of a sixth sense, a secret power one can discover and even train. The idea is often present in popular culture, like in Spiderman’s spidey sense or “The Force” in Star Wars. I have come across people who thought in their childhood they had a “superpower”, were witches or even aliens or mutants because they were strongly intuitive.

This superpower is often described as “psychic” abilities. The web is actually full of posts about psychics. Like “8 signs you are a psychic”:

  1. You are very empathetic

The first six are true for me, the last two fortunately not. There is a thin line between being psychic and being psychotic. As magical as some of the others may seem, they aren’t really that special. Anyone can predict future outcomes occasionally and “seeing things others can’t’’ has got a lot to do with a “mapping mind/connecting-the-dots” mind. Intuition in Myers-Briggs is closely correlated with openness to experience (in particular to ideas and aesthetics) in the Big 5 inventory. People extremely high in openness are also at risk for schizophrenia. Openness is also correlated with IQ and creativity. Here we encounter a twilight zone between genius and madness. These correlations are also the reason why it is often highly intelligent people who believe weird things. It didn’t come as a surprise to me when Elon Musk said that he believes we live in a simulated reality (aka The Matrix). I have seen too many intelligent people believe in stuff like astrology or “The Secret”. Needless to say, I don’t believe in any of these ideas. But I am interested in what turns intutitives into “visionaries”, even if their intuitions aren’t always correct. So, how does it work?

Oddly enough, intuition isn’t taken very seriously in psychology and often even considered a pseudoscientific concept. Some people are more intuitive than others, but does it really make sense to distinguish between sensors and intuitives? Are these in any way real? One distinction that comes close to it is left-brained vs right-brained, but it is too general to be really useful. Another one is between more abstract (intuitives) and concrete (sensors).

One of the most interesting distinctions is between cognitive mappers and packers:

Mappers predominantly adopt the cognitive strategy of populating and integrating mental maps, then reading off the solution to any particular problem. Packers are habit-seekers and tend to solve problems by referring to past decisions (learned “packages”). This difference probably lies at the heart of “openness” intuitive people love to learn about connections in their mental maps, whereas sensors prefer to do things according to tried and true methods. Intuition isn’t a superpower per se that allows you to solve any problem you want to, but it allows you to establish connections between two preexisting points. Intuitives see the world like a jigsaw puzzle with many missing pieces, sensors see the pieces that are there.

I have argued before that these cognitive styles reflect the evolved learning strategies of farmers (recurring fixed set of tasks) and hunter-gatherers (“open world” with many possibilities”). Hunter-gatherers learn about hundreds of plant species and have a much more varied diet than farmers. But shouldn’t sensing be more important to hunter-gatherers than intuition? I’d assume they are equally important. Simon Baron-Cohen tells a very impressive story about an autistic man in The Pattern Seekers (2020) that illustrates how a pattern-seeking mind is helpful to hunters. Jonah is a young man, who loves observing patterns on the surface of the ocean. He is so good at “reading” these patterns that he can predict where the fishermen can find fish:

Often he says nothing and simply points. The fishermen have learned to trust him, and they throw their nets where he points. They still marvel at how easily Jonah spots patterns they miss. And they say his predictions are always right.

This is a great example of intuition at work and it illustrates both that intuition isn’t really anything “magical” and how intuition is important to hunter-gatherers.

Daniel Everett opens his book Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes with the following story about the Pirahã hunter-gatherers:

I was rubbing the sleep from my eyes. I turned to Kóhoi, my principal language teacher, and asked, “What’s up?” He was standing to my right, his strong, brown, lean body tensed from what he was looking at. “Don’t you see him over there?” he asked impatiently. “Xigagaí, one of the beings that lives above the clouds, is standing on the beach yelling at us, telling us he will kill us if we go to the jungle.” “Where?” I asked. “I don’t see him.” “Right there!” Kóhoi snapped, looking intently toward the middle of the apparently empty beach. “In the jungle behind the beach?” “No! There on the beach. Look!” he replied with exasperation. In the jungle with the Pirahãs I regularly failed to see wildlife they saw. My inexperienced eyes just weren’t able to see as theirs did. But this was different. Even I could tell that there was nothing on that white, sandy beach no more than one hundred yards away. And yet as certain as I was about this, the Pirahãs were equally certain that there was something there. Maybe there had been something there that I just missed seeing, but they insisted that what they were seeing, Xigagaí, was still there. Everyone continued to look toward the beach. I heard Kristene, my six- at the Pirahãs. She was as puzzled as I was. Kristene and I left the Pirahãs and walked back into our house. What had I just witnessed? Over the more than two decades since that summer morning, I have tried to come to grips with the significance of how two cultures, my European-based culture and the Pirahãs’ culture, could see reality so differently. I could never have proved to the Pirahãs that the beach was empty. Nor could they have convinced me that there was anything, much less a spirit, on it.

What was it really that Everett had just witnessed? Whose reality was real, his or the Pirahãs’? I am not going to answer this question in a philosophical way, but in a psychological way. No, I don’t think that the Pirahãs succumbed to what may be called mass psychosis and they certainly weren’t on magic mushrooms either. But how is it possible that Everett and his daughter failed to see something that the hunter-gatherers were convinced was there? The solution is actually quite simple: like Jonah in the above stories the Pirahãs were able to see a pattern that Everett failed to see, just like the fishermen failed to see the patterns Jonah was able to see. Of course, that pattern wasn’t a spirit, Xigagaí is really only the social construct the Pirahãs made out of a natural pattern. There is doubtlessly a metaphysical component to this pattern that has no objective, but only a collective reality. But then, this is equally true for the kind of reality we live in, even when based on an objective reality, a lot of it is socially constructed. When Everett says: “My inexperienced eyes just weren’t able to see as theirs did. But this was different” it isn’t entirely true. The hunter-gatherers often can see animals he can’t see based on patterns he doesn’t perceive not necessarily based on keener senses. In a way it’s similar to seeing the numbers in the picture below. If you don’t know what to look for, you may easily miss them:

Even if you know what to look for it’s not easy to find them. The answer is 1246. There is nothing magical about intuition. It’s not really a sense either, that is why two highly intuitive people may easily disagree with each other about the same matter. It is possible to train your intuition, however. Simply by listening to it. Like Spiderman’s spidey sense, intuition gives you little signals when something is off. It’s up to you to decide to follow them or to ignore them.

Originally published at on March 5, 2021.



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