You've heard of intuition, but what you may not realize is that it's a biological survival tool, and possibly a crucial get-ahead tool. And while animals often heed this sixth sense, humans tend to let "rational" thinking override it. Here's the thing: Intuition can guide us to make smarter, faster choices, says Gert Gigerenzer, PhD, author of Gut Feelings.
What Intuition Is
"Gut instincts are mental shortcuts used to make a snap judgment based on experience and environment," says David Myers, PhD, author of Intuition. Your unconscious picks up on clues below the surface of rational awareness - from body language to just an uneasy feeling that you may need to bust out the self-defense - and communicates the info to you via intuitive feelings. It's like a little covert operation in your head.
These messages are sparked by perceptual cues (e.g., people can tell when a smile is fake yet can't explain why) or by past situations. "Your brain has a database of knowledge that your subconscious sifts through," notes Gigerenzer. So if you get bad vibes from a coworker, on a deeper level you might be noticing patterns between her and someone else who mistreated you. Here's how to tackle that mistreatment the next time you face it.
Ways to Spot a Gut Signal
An unconscious nudge often manifests physically, says Judith Orloff, MD, author of Positive Energy - think a knot in your stomach or feeling the hair on the back of your neck stand on end.
But how can you tell if the jittery anxiety you have before boarding a plane is a subconscious SOS or just nerves? "A gut instinct isn't accompanied by fear," notes Dr. Orloff. "It calmly advises you what to do." So get confident and listen to it.
How to Intuit
"Intuition is like a muscle," says Gigerenzer. "It gets stronger with use." So give it a workout by following your instinct with inconsequential choices, such as whether to wear jeans or black pants. Assuming both look great on, it doesn't matter which you go for. But this exercise gets you in the habit of relying on gut reactions instead of analyzing ("I wore jeans the other day, so I guess I'll do the pants"). Eventually, listening to your inner voice will become second nature and help you out with important decisions.
Having trouble tuning in to your gut? Jump-start it by making a logical decision, but before doing anything, take stock of how you feel about that conclusion. Say you're dating two guys. Pick the one who makes more sense (has a better job, etc.). If your heart sinks, you know the other guy is right.
Just remember that your intuition's power depends on the breadth of your experience. Example: While someone who cooks regularly (Not you? Try these recipes that will make him swoon) can wing a recipe with terrific results, a less practiced chef should probably stick to the instructions. "In unfamiliar territory, give practical thinking added weight," notes Gigerenzer. "The unconscious and conscious minds were designed to work in tandem."
TELL US: Do you follow your intuition? Has it helped you?
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