What is your gut telling you?

Intuition might seem like a concept too vague to be worthy of scientific investigation. Some cognitive psychologists see it as the opposite of rational thinking or reasoning – the time-saving ‘rule of thumb’. We often talk about it as the ‘gut feeling’, or the ‘feeling of knowing’. Intuition allows us to make a quick decision, based  on our stored knowledge and without the need for conscious deliberation. Such an ability is not only useful but often necessary in our fast paced hectic world – no wonder that the human brain is so well adapted to using intuitive judgments.

Perceiving the world, e.g. seeing something, is accomplished through brain structures that form a hierarchy. For instance, at the lower end of this hierarchy sensory regions of the brain (the concrete-processing areas) respond to and interpret physical features of what we see, such as colour or orientation of lines. Higher up, separate areas (the abstract specialists) then analyse more abstract characteristics, e.g. category or meaning.

It would be hard and time-consuming to process every single object in a bottom-up manner (from concrete to abstract); the visual cortex would need to perform a detailed analysis and generate numerous possible options as to what an object could be. Hence, the brain adopts a different strategy. If we look at an image of a fragmented object and at an image containing only scrambled lines we can quickly recognise which one can be completed into something meaningful, even though we do not consciously recognize the object (see below).

An image of a bed: fragmented (left) and scrambled (right). Luu P, Geyer A, Fidopiastis C, Campbell G, et al. (2010) Reentrant Processing in Intuitive Perception. PLoS ONE  5(3): e9523. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0009523 http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0009523
An image of a bed: fragmented (left) and scrambled (right).
(Luu P, Geyer A, Fidopiastis C, Campbell G, et al. (2010) Reentrant Processing in Intuitive Perception. PLoS ONE)

This is because the concrete-processing areas send information to the abstract-specialists before they engage in a laborious analysis of details. One of the brain’s ‘abstract specialists’ is the medial orbitorfrontal cortex. The orbitofrontal cortex is situated quite high in the hierarchy of perception, so does not get involved in analysing the physical details of an object. Rather, its job is to assess information from structures lower in the hierarchy and decide on the emotional content of the experience and whether or not an action is required.

Having received the signal about the fragmented image, the medial orbitofrontal cortex works out the ‘gist’ of the image – an intuitive judgment as to what this object could be. Then this ‘gist’ is sent back down to the areas of the visual cortex, where it guides more detailed analysis of the object. The whole process takes place within a couple of hundreds of milliseconds – no wonder we are not even aware of it! But, how does the orbitofrontal cortex know what the fragments of lines might mean? The image activates information that we already have stored in the vast networks of knowledge about similar items. Hence, even if we consciously do not recognize an object, we can tell that it is, in fact, a meaningful thing, as opposed to a similar image containing only scrambled lines.

So we have an idea of how the areas of the brain work together when we experience the ‘feeling of knowing’ or make intuitive decisions. Good communication between the ‘concrete’ and ‘abstract specialists’ is key in this process. What would perhaps be useful to find out is: are there ways of increasing or improving our ability to use intuition to make good decisions? Should it be encouraged in certain situations where explicit information is lacking? Is it true what they say about women’s intuition and if so – how would that manifest in the brain activity? Even though we might sometimes underestimate intuition, the brain takes advantage of it whenever possible.

Post by: Jadwiga Nazimek

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