The Nuance

The Science Behind Gut Feelings

Intuition is real and measurable, but often misleading

Markham Heid
Elemental
Published in
6 min readJan 28, 2021

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Kieran Blakey for Elemental

Intuition is a tough thing to study. Even defining it is tricky. It’s not quite an insight, which is when a solution or some other bit of hoped-for knowledge pops into your head. It’s more like a sixth sense or a feeling — an inclination that you can’t really explain but that seems trustworthy.

Some ingenious researchers have found ways to both capture human intuition and also shed light on its inner workings.

For a 2016 study in Nature Scientific Reports, a team of Italian scientists filmed a series of short videos. In each of the videos, an unidentified person grasps a half-full bottle of water with the intention of either drinking from it or pouring its contents into a glass.

Next, the researchers had people watch one-second clips cut from the original videos. Each of the clips ends the moment the unidentified person’s fingers touch the bottle. The people who watched the videos tried to predict whether the person in the video was going to drink from the bottle or pour out its contents. Remarkably, their predictions were accurate far above the level of mere chance. Just by seeing a hand reach for a bottle, they were able to intuit what would happen next.

“People were definitely surprised by their accuracy,” says Cristina Becchio, PhD, one of the study’s authors and a professor of psychology at the Italian Institute of Technology. “After the experiment, participants often reported they were just guessing.” Even when people tried to explain their accurate guess, Becchio says their explanations were inconsistent and tended to involve unhelpful visual cues.

Human knowledge is a vast and shadowy landscape; much of what a person “knows” seems to sprout from the dark places. More and more, researchers are finding that intuitions and other apparently uncanny sources of knowledge can be tied to hidden processes in the brain.

“Intuition can get at that deep-seated knowledge that we can’t consciously disentangle.”

“People are able to see and recognize patterns that can help them make decisions or form judgments…

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Markham Heid
Elemental

I’m a long-time contributor at TIME and other media orgs. I write mostly about health. I grew up in Michigan, but these days I live in southwest Germany.