The Meaning of Intuition

One of the topics I am interested in exploring in this blog is intuitive decision making. There are a few words in English which have similar or related meanings – words like intuition, instinct and impulse. We use expressions like “trust your gut” or “use your intuition” or “trust your instincts”. These three expressions imply something positive, but when we say someone is “impulsive” that can be a criticism. So what is going on here? What are we really talking about?

What these words and expressions have in common is that they are trying to talk about motivations for action that are not purely rational or intellectual. They come from a place which seems deeper and more personal than our thinking minds. They will often relate to a desire to act which we feel is coming from our body or our heart, rather than our head.

When I talk about intuition I am referring to something inside us that is wise and knowing.  The dictionary calls it a “direct perceptions of truths and facts independent of any reasoning process”. Its that part of you that understands what is going on, and senses what is needed. Intution has a positive, helpful, truthful, quality.

If we have an impulse to do something, it seems to have a life of its own. The dictionary describes it as “a sudden and involuntary prompting to action”. The main characteristic of impulses is this automatic or involuntary aspect. The just come up. Impulses are not necessarily good or bad. They can be helpful or destructive, depending on the circumstances.

When I consider the word instinct I think about animals and how they do things automatically rather than rely on rational decision making processes. The dictionary talks about a “natural inclination or tendency”. The main feature of natural instincts is that they arise as a result of being biological beings. They are the urge to fight, to have sex, to run when afraid, that evolved with us and have been essential to our survival a species.  These instincts are a fundamental part of being human, but they need to moderated by good judgement to avoid the excesses of aggressive behaviour and sexual violence.

Just to complicate things, the word instinct is sometimes used to refer to what I am calling intuition. The dictionary confirms this with an alternative definition of instinct as “ natural intuitive power”. Expressions like “trust your gut” or “use your intuition” or “trust your instincts” are pointing towards this wise inner knowing.

With all these subtle differences in meaning, it can be confusing when people talk about “using your intuition” or “trusting your instincts”. When I talk about intuitive decision making I am not talking about allowing ourselves to be driven indiscriminately by unexamined impulses or instincts. I am talking about getting in touch with the wise, knowing part of ourselves, that is on our side and understands what we need to be doing.

Thanks to the Concise Macquarie Dictionary for definitions.

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