The Truth About Intuition

There's a growing acceptance among scientists (and psychics!) that we all possess an ancient inner wisdom that can guide us toward the best possible decisions in every part of our lives. The trick is learning to listen.

Two hours into Maureen Hancock's Spirit Communication workshop, after the overview of auras and chakras, the discussion of clairvoyance versus clairsentience versus clairaudience, and the meditation where I've asked my spirit guides to get on board, I'm not yet feeling the intuition thing.

Hancock, 44, a popular spirit medium, is leading a sold-out room of 50 people, mostly women, through an exercise to help us "flex our intuition muscle." She asks us to close our eyes as she holds up a piece of paper on which she's drawn one of five shapes: star, heart, rectangle, triangle, and circle. She will project the symbol into our minds and it will appear like an image on a screen.

"Don't overthink it," Hancock advises. A slim, attractive blonde, one of nine children born into a blue-collar Irish-Catholic family in Stoughton, Massachusetts, Hancock has a pert, freckled prettiness and broad Boston accent that bring to mind Amy Adams in The Fighter. She looks about as otherworldly as I do -- a mother-of-two normalcy that informs the title of her memoir, The Medium Next Door: Adventures of a Real-Life Ghost Whisperer.

Hancock's specialty is communicating with the dead. With uncanny precision, she can intuit from strangers who they've lost and how their loved one died. She might even take on mannerisms of the deceased. Her "Postcards from Heaven" events draw crowds, and no wonder. The sessions are by turns hilarious and moving, entertaining and enlightening. If you can imagine her starring in her own reality show, well, your intuition is right: The one-hour pilot for her Psychic in Suburbia aired on the Style Network last summer. Hancock also assists police in missing-person cases and runs a nonprofit, Seeds of Hope, to help the terminally ill deal with mortality. Her message -- that the deceased are always nearby, eager to say that they're happy, that they're "not dead, they're different" -- is enormously comforting to many people.

In her book, Hancock likens intuition to the navigation system in your car: "It's connected to a satellite that always knows where you are. Punch in the direction you want and voila! -- the GPS guides you step by step." And while scientists might quibble with the talking-to-thedead part of what she does, there is a building consensus that intuition -- those quick impressions and gut feelings, that sense of knowing something without knowing why we know it -- is a real neurological phenomenon that can be a creative decision-making and even life-saving tool.

That's where Hancock's Spirit Communication workshops come in. Held every few months via teleconference and at a theater in Abington, Massachusetts, they're always sold out. Usually, she says, half of the attendees are there to become better psychics (indeed, four women in front of me have just returned from Arthur Findlay College in England, a training school for mediumship and healing). The other half are laypeople like me who just want to tune into their intuition as a way to improve their lives.

That's where Hancock's Spirit Communication workshops come in. Held every few months via teleconference and at a theater in Abington, Massachusetts, they're always sold out. Usually, she says, half of the attendees are there to become better psychics (indeed, four women in front of me have just returned from Arthur Findlay College in England, a training school for mediumship and healing). The other half are laypeople like me who just want to tune into their intuition as a way to improve their lives.

I've come looking for self-direction. For too long I've ignored the inner voice that insists I ditch corporate ladderclimbing for a more creative and independent (if less lucrative) life. At 50, after three decades of chasing some ill-advised idea of who I should be, with my parents and older brother gone from this earth and my own mortality on my mind, I stand at a crossroads. I want to change course, to tune in to that higher satellite self that can steer me toward a more graceful and authentic existence; the one that whispers, You can write that novel. You can be a better mother. You still have time.

So when Hancock tells us that "Opening up to intuition will help with many aspects of your life," I'm all ears. "When you clear the clutter in your mind, you can hear an inner voice that might help you go for the right job, get out of the wrong one, be clearer about the path to take and the one to avoid," Hancock tells us. "We all have gut feelings and nudges from our higher selves. If you learn to quiet your mind and listen to them, everything flows more easily."

OK, easy enough -- or so I think. Earlier, Hancock's older sister Rosie, an aura and chakra expert (she also has two nieces who are budding psychic mediums), had explained that the body has seven chakra points that regulate energy, like valves one can open and close. The third-eye, or "brow," chakra is the intuition valve. Hancock had guided us through a meditation in which we imagined opening our seven chakras, our energy flowing easily, our minds cleared of clutter and crystallized in the moment. I try to go back into that seamless place and imagine my third-eye chakra opening like a spigot.

Yet the intuition isn't flowing. As I concentrate on the paper Hancock holds, a circle appears on my mental screen; she's holding a rectangle. I see a star; she's holding a heart. I can't get out of my head, and I'm not the only one.

An intuitive "hit" can take a number of forms, Hancock says: a physical sensation, a vivid dream, a ghostly nudge, an image that appears out of nowhere -- poof! -- as an inescapable truth. "Go with that first thing that pops into your head," Hancock urges us. "It's usually right."

The power of first impressions is an intuitive staple, says David G. Myers, a social psychologist and author of Intuition: Its Power and Perils. "Quick judgments have been found to be superior to analyzed ones," he says, particularly "when judging how we're going to like art or food, or when reading emotions. Show us a microsecond of an angry or happy face and we'll read it accurately."

Myers calls intuition "an ancient biological wisdom" akin to animal instinct. At the dawn of mankind, those who could instantly assess whether a stranger was friend or foe were more likely to survive. Over the eons, this instinct imprinted itself on the primitive brain, now called the limbic system. As humankind evolved, so did the newer part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, which is the seat of conscious thought. The prefrontal cortex is a busy place, what with meeting deadlines and solving Sudoku puzzles. As a result, it can short-circuit in stressful situations that require an instantaneous reaction. That's when the brain goes into primal mode, sending a quicksilver warning that bypasses the congested conscious mind, like the carpool lane on a Los Angeles freeway.

"The human mind operates on two tracks -- a conscious, rational, explicit level, and an unconscious, intuitive, automatic level," Myers explains. "That second, or lower level, turns out to be bigger than we imagined."

Intuition can also affect decisionmaking. In a 2004 Dutch study, people were asked to read reams of material about potential apartments. Those who reviewed it and then either went to sleep or distracted themselves with other reading, work, or exercise tended to pick the best apartments.

"They enabled their minds to process the complex information unconsciously," Myers says. "Faced with decisions involving many factors, the best advice may indeed be to 'sleep on it.'"

Where Myers and other psychologists part ways with Hancock -- aside from the spirit-medium stuff -- is in the source of intuition. They believe intuitive feelings spring not from some mystical or divine origin but from memories and experiences stored in our brains.

German psychologist Tilmann Betsch argues that intuition is actually a process of thinking. "The input," he says, "is mostly provided by knowledge stored in longterm memory," or past episodes in our lives locked in our unconscious, like sci-fi space travelers kept in suspended animation. "The output of intuition," Betsch believes, "is triggered by feelings of liking an entity or of risk." Let's say you spot a stranger at a class reunion. An immediate sense of dislike and apprehension arises. The pinched feeling in your stomach is that primal intuitive warning racing down the vagus nerve from your brain to your solar plexus, a bundle of nerves between the heart and the diaphragm. (The term "gut feeling" had to come from somewhere.) Days later, it hits you: He was the creepy kid who wouldn't stop talking to you at orientation.

The "smartest" intuition, says Myers, springs from a deep well of knowledge and experience, particularly in those who have a specific area of expertise. Some people, whether they are financial analysts, firefighters, or soldiers, seem better able to let their subconscious mind guide their decisions; that is, they have honed their own instincts. In an effort to reduce casualties, the U.S. Army is conducting a study to identify soldiers who seem to have a sixth sense for detecting roadside bombs.

Judith Orloff, M.D., assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA and a world-renowned intuition expert (Hancock follows her on Twitter), agrees that we can all sharpen our intuitive abilities. Orloff trains patients to "awaken" theirs through meditation, dream interpretation, and body awareness. She herself lets intuition guide her work, although as she describes it, her powers, which she first discovered as a child, are far from ordinary. She recalls seeing a new patient who was discussing a stressful job. Orloff knew there was no cancer in her medical or family history. "Suddenly," Orloff says, "I had this knowing that she had breast cancer." Orloff suggested she get a physical, and sure enough, a doctor found a lump in one breast. The patient was successfully treated.

Orloff kept her gift a secret for years before writing her first book, Second Sight, a memoir. She admits she was "terrified" about coming out to her peers in psychiatry. "It took me a long time to feel good about it. I found my voice." Now she speaks at medical schools and hospitals. In 2008, she lectured on intuitive healing at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, proof that the medical establishment is more open to such notions. As for research into the neuroscience of intuition, "I think it's beautiful that researchers can make it acceptable for people who need that kind of explanation," she says. "But my interest is in how it's used to help people."

Like Orloff, Hancock first became aware of her psychic powers as a young girl, when she began seeing ghosts walk after suffering a near-fatal bout with lead poisoning. She credits her intuition with convincing her, in her early twenties, to leave a party early and go home, where she found her fiance -- the man she had skipped college to live with--in bed with another woman. Trusting her gut saved her from a bad marriage.

A few months later, however, she brushed off her premonitions and paid a price. Instead of heeding a friend's entreaty to sleep at her house after a late night out, she ignored the little voice in her head urging her to stay and decided to drive home. She fell asleep at the wheel and hit a tree. She wasn't wearing her seat belt and suffered massive facial injuries. To this day she believes the spirit of her late grandmother saved her from a fatal car crash. What some might call a denial of common sense felt, to Hancock, like a life-changing denial of her own gift. After recovering (miraculously, doctors said) she began to hear voices, but this time, she began listening and sharing her knowledge.

At her workshops, Hancock gets a lot of people like me who want to tap into their intuition so badly they try to force it, to make it happen. "I often say to people, don't measure a possible intuitive hit in your head, measure it in your heart. How does it feel? Because if you overthink it, you'll get steered in the wrong direction."

There's one last try with the symbol exercise, and I really want to get it right. I make it a litmus test of sorts, and being wrong will only prove that my inner GPS is malfunctioning and beyond repair. I overthink it, as always. My prefrontal cortex kicks into overdrive and I turn the exercise into a process of elimination. Eyes closed, I think, She's already shown us the heart, the star, and the rectangle. That leaves the circle and the triangle. So it's gotta be one of those. Or maybe she's going to fool us and hold up a symbol she's already shown us!

As if she can sense my mind whirring, Hancock tells the class, "Ask your guides to help you. Say, can you hold up the piece of paper? Ask them to hold it up."

The guides she refers to might be a guardian angel or the spirit of a late loved one. Unlike the ladies in the front row, I haven't been at this long enough to recruit any angels to my cause, so I turn to my own dearly departed: my father, mother, and older brother, lost over four decades to war, heart disease, and cancer, respectively. It's a little out there, but I have consulted spiritualists in times of trouble, and I listen eagerly as my husband reads me my horoscope from The Village Voice. Maybe this intuition thing is one part science and two parts faith, and I just need a little more of the latter. While people in lab coats may not be able to explain Hancock's affinity with the afterlife, I don't mind the fact that human wisdom can be both inherently inexplicable and mysterious. Sometimes we just have to go with the flow, get out of our own way, and heed the wellintended whispers of our stalwart hearts.

A vision pops into my head. I see my loved ones sitting on a log, all in a row. I can only guess they're on a log because all three of them enjoyed camping. I have never imagined them together before in the afterlife or wherever it is their spirits reside, and the vision catches me off guard. I did not create this scene; it came to me. They came to me. Each of them holding up a piece of paper, and since I love them, and they love me (Hancock would insist that I use the present tense), only one possible symbol could be on that paper.

It takes about two seconds to get the answer. I open my eyes and look at Hancock. She, too, is holding the heart.

Dana White is a writer and mother of two teenage sons. Her work has appeared in many publications, including The New York Times.

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