Intuition: What is it and how can you trust it?

By planetm | August 5, 2021

Kerry Dolan breaks down the difference between trusting your intuition and acting on impulse

A colourful and abstract depiction of mindfulness - trusting your intuition can allow for a more mindful decision making process

How do you know when something is an impulse or intuition? Well, 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. For example, 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.

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 worth keeping tabs on. If you feel an impulse, try running it past your rational thinking mind or your intuition first.

What’s the difference between impulse and intuition?

A man looking at a confusing set of arrows, unsure which direction to choose. Intuition can assist in ambiguous situations, or times when decisions are difficult to make.

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 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 super-computer, able to access the sum total of our individual and genetic experience in an instant. Taking incoming information and performing comparisons with 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.

Intuition can save lives

This 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. They were 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 is 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.

How to trust and use your intuition

Make space for it

The best way to access your intuition is to carve out space for it.

Our minds are often clamouring and busy with thoughts. It can be hard to recognise the subtle communication of intuition among the noise.

Setting aside time for a regular meditation practice will help you to quieten the mind and recognise the way in which your inner guidance system communicates with you.

Learn to recognise your own inner tutor

Intuition can come in many sensory guises. You might get a physical sensation, a visual image, an unexplainable emotional response, a voice, a hunch, a deep sense of knowing or even a distinctive taste.

Think of a time when you made a good decision that you can’t explain. Try to remember it in as much detail as you can.

Was there a feeling or a sense that it was the right thing to do? If you learn to recognise it, you will be quicker to heed it next time.

Recognise your emotions and their influence

Our fears and insecurities can often cloud our insights, so it’s important to recognise any emotional baggage you have around a decision you want to make.

Be honest with yourself about your fears and doubts – if they are out in the open they won’t be masquerading as intuition.

Take your time

Intuition loves quiet times, open spaces, gazing out of windows, walks in nature and the snoozy space between sleep and wakefulness.

Find time away from distractions to connect to that inner knowing.

The benefits of creativity

Getting creative with simple activities like drawing, collaging and stream of consciousness journalling can be great ways to quiet your conscious mind and access your intuitive wisdom.

Try posing a question before you begin, and let go as you allow yourself to enter a free flow of creativity.

This article first appeared in issue 17 of Planet Mindful magazine.