Impulse versus Intuition

By Cara Waudby Tolley | April 19, 2022

Hypnotherapist and life coach Kerry Dolan explores the difference between acting on impulse and tuning into our human intuition

Have you ever had a sudden, overwhelming urge to dive into the local bakers for a sweet treat? Did you ever follow an impulse to do something kind for a stranger? Do you sometimes find yourself saying something in anger that you later regret?

An impulse is a decision made without thinking. It’s usually driven by an emotional response to an obvious external trigger: caving in and eating the family pack of crisps; succumbing to the alluring stranger; hitting ‘buy now’ in response to the tempting ad that popped up on your Insta – these are examples of acting on impulse, not intuition. Your inner wisdom is not guiding you to eat more junk food, buy more fast fashion or hurl insults at the woman who took your parking space.

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That’s not to say that impulsivity is always a bad thing. Sometimes, our urges lead us to do wonderful things, but it can be a bit hit and miss so it’s definitely worth keeping tabs on – running it past your rational thinking mind or your intuition first.

What’s the difference between intuition and impulse?

Intuition and impulse are often confused, but there are subtle differences that you can learn to recognise. Intuition is an inner knowing that doesn’t require conscious thinking. It doesn’t have the urgency that characterises impulse and it’s not driven by emotions or whims. It is a quiet, solid wisdom that arises when we tune into ourselves. It’s in-tuition: your inner teacher.

Until recently, not much was known about intuition. For many, what can’t be seen, proven and documented scientifically, is dismissed.

The science of intuition

When you see a poppy unexpectedly bursting through a crack in the pavement, it seems unsupported, but only because you don’t see the vast network of roots and nutrients spreading out beneath the crack. Even a small gap can open up a wealth of resources. Our intuition, like the poppy, seems unsupported and therefore unreliable because we can’t see that its strong roots are tapping into a vast and intelligent unconscious mind. It provides access to a lifetime of experience and wisdom that cannot possibly be held in our conscious minds.

Research suggests that our brains are, essentially, prediction machines. The unconscious mind is a supercomputer, able to access the sum total of our individual and genetic experience in an instant, comparing it with incoming sensory information and making rapid calculations about what will come next. In comparison, the conscious thought process – the one we are consciously aware of – is far more cumbersome.

Which explains why, as Professor Hodgkins, leader of a research project on intuition at Leeds University, says, “People usually experience true intuition when they are under severe time pressure or in a situation of information overload or acute danger, where conscious analysis of the situation may be difficult or impossible.”

One example he cites is of a Formula One driver who braked suddenly as he approached a hairpin bend. He couldn’t explain his action, but it led him to avoid a pile-up and, arguably, saved his life.

“The driver couldn’t explain why he felt he should stop, but the urge was much stronger than his desire to win the race,” Professor Hodgkinson explains. “The driver underwent forensic analysis by psychologists afterwards, where he was shown a video to mentally relive the event.

In hindsight, he realised that the crowd, which would have normally been cheering him on, wasn’t looking at him coming up to the bend but was looking the other way in a static, frozen way. That was the cue. He didn’t consciously process this, but he knew something was wrong and stopped in time.”

Both conscious and unconscious thought are crucial to human thinking. The two styles are complementary and work well when we learn to employ them together. When even science is championing intuition, it is surely time to harness this connection with our deeper wisdom.

About the author

Kerry Dolan is a hypnotherapist, NLP Master practitioner and wellbeing coach, with a specialism in women’s health. Find out more about her work or follow her on Instagram at @kerry.wombservice.

This article first appeared in issue 17 of Planet Mindful magazine. Understand more about mindfulness here.