The Intuition Challenge

//The Intuition Challenge

The Intuition Challenge

A question posed by one of my students triggered this article. In one of the sessions of the Mindsight Intensive I talked about the importance of intuition and introduced the topic with a story about the famous Italian journalist Tiziano Terzani, whose specialty was to report on the Far East, where he lived most of his adult life.

During the seventies a psychic told him not to ever fly during the year 1993. If he did, he would put himself in grave danger. Left-brain, successful political journalist as he was, divination and psychic abilities were certainly not topics he would have ever concerned himself with. The years passed and he forgot about the episode. But as 1993 approached, the memory came back to mind and he began to think about it. Although not into divination, he was an intuitive man, and curiously the psychic’s suggestion began to resonate with him. Although the prediction of catastrophe intrigued him, what really captured his imagination was to contemplate how different his life would become if he, as a journalist who has to fly for professional reasons all over the place, did not fly for one year, and what unexpected experiences and opportunities may arise from implementing this idea. To make a long story short, he did follow through with it. The experience profoundly transformed his life and he wrote a book about it. During that year, the World Health Organization finished an important project in the Far East, and invited 15 or so journalists from several major world-renouned newspapers and magazines to board a helicopter and go see this project and report about it. He would have been among them, but because he did not fly that year, with his consent somebody else was assigned to the mission in his stead. The helicopter crashed shortly after take-off or before landing (I don’t remember which) and everybody was of course wounded to differing degrees of severity.

My student argued that statistical probability amply explains the possibility of such a string of events without having to invoke some kind of extraordinary predictive powers psychics claim to have. From a scientific point of view, he added, there is no obvious causal link between his decision not to fly because a psychic told him so, and the fact that he was not on this ill-fated helicopter.

My student is entirely right, but also misses the whole point of what this story teaches us. Intuition is one of the nine functions of the medial prefrontal cortex (MPC) and as such absolutely vital for health and wellbeing. The subjective experience of intuition is profoundly a right-brain function and its truths are not scientifically accessible. In fact, something very different and deeply meaningful is at stake here.

Let me try to unpack Terzani’s experiences first. It is a fact that 15 years prior a psychic ‘predicted’ (whatever that means) that he would be in grave danger should he fly during the year 1993. It is a fact that for whatever personal reason Terzani, an otherwise rational man, was deeply touched by the psychic’s advice not to fly, and that he chose to follow the advice. It is interesting to note that in his decision to follow through with this, Terzani was much less impressed by the prediction of doom than he was by the thought that such a decision may profoundly alter his life in meaningful ways. It is a fact that because of his decision he was not invited to take the helicopter and someone else replaced him, and it is also a fact that this very helicopter happened to crash during that same year he was not flying.

Now here is the crucial idea: This sequence of facts and events makes for a good, even profound story that is healing for the soul. The narrative function of the brain develops a compelling story that is subjectively deeply meaningful. The story is not a scientific fact, but more like a Shakespearean play. Humans create meaningful stories to make sense of their lives and be connected to their context. This is the reason we go to movies and theatres. The question whether the psychic really had predictive powers or whether it is just chance is irrelevant. What is relevant here is that Terzani engaged his MPC’s intuitive function and put it to good use to direct his life. There is a compelling sense of being attuned to the cosmos that arises when we know how to follow our intuition and weave meaningful life narratives, despite the fact that none of it is scientifically provable. The art is to be able to live the stories fully, knowing that they are not scientifically true, but subjectively meaningful. In his situation I would personally have felt blessed that I was not on the helicopter because I had decided not to fly that year, not because there actually exists a scientifically proven causality between the two, or because God actually blessed me to avoid the crash (maybe he/she did, maybe not!), but because my brain’s construction of an assumed causality feels deeply meaningful. This is a crucial difference, the one between an actual and an assumed causality. The first is scientific and gives us objective information about how the material world works, but rarely feeds the soul; the second belongs to the brain’s narrative function, to the story-telling function that is so important for physical, psychological and spiritual health. It feeds the soul, because the narrative function, if integrated, is a manifestation of our fully embodied psychological and existential reality expressing our subjective truth. It is this reality, and not the scientific one, that makes for the experience of having lived a meaningful life, and it is this reality we learn to explore through mindsight.

There is a condition such narratives need to meet in order to be healing and meaningful. They have to be coherent. This means that they have to resonate with all levels of organismic neuroprocessing; to put it in common parlance, they have to resonate with the gut, all the way up to the heart, the head and the spirit. (I use these vernacular terms to make it easier for laypeople to understand. Scientifically speaking, these terms denote different levels of neuroprocessing: ‘the gut’ corresponds to sensorimotor processing, ‘the heart’ to emotional processing, ‘the head’ to left-brain cognitive processing, and ‘the spirit’ to integrated awareness processing.) Coherent narratives emerge from an integrated state of the organism, where there are no major dissociations, defenses or repressions. How can a narrative be coherent when it does not meet scientific criteria? In our example, how can I have a coherent narrative with respect to having been spared a crash because I heeded a psychic’s advice, when there is no scientifc evidence for it, when in other words you may think that ‘the head’ cannot possibly be on board? The answer is simple: In exactly the same way you find deep solace from a Shakespeare play. I am totally aware that I create a narrative that imputes a causality where none may really be, and I can deeply enjoy this because I do not pretend to make a scientific statement. Conversely, it will not surprise you to hear that in all those instances where patients of mine have created beliefs about causalities that don’t really exist, they developed symptoms of all sorts. Applied to this example, I would develop a belief that the link between my following the psychic’s advice and being spared the helicopter crash is actually scientifically causal. In pretending that something is scientifically ironclad when it is not, the left brain would show its characteristic tendency to delude itself and be unreasonably certain, which would pretty soon create in me other cognitive and emotional distortions. Dysregulation in my energy and information flow would ensue and I would fall into chaos and/or rigidity and develop symptoms.

Coherent narratives require resonance between all levels of neuroprocessing, the gut, the heart, the head and the spirit. This equally applies to intuition, such as the one that told Terzani that no matter what, the idea of not flying for one year may turn out to be life-changing. How do we know the difference between integrated intuition and other experiences that come from old conditionings or unresolved internal conflicts? Have you ever ‘followed your head’, gotten it wrong and then realized that you should have ‘followed your heart or your gut’ instead? Or you followed your gut, only to later realize you should have listened to your head? As I see it, true intuition is an integrated process, in which gut, heart, head and spirit are all involved and either in resonance with each other, or if not, the MPC is aware of the reason for the discrepancy and can clearly decide which level of neuroprocessing is the accurate one. Let’s keep in mind that intuition seems to involve the neural plexi around the inner organs of the torso, in particular the intestines, the heart and the lungs. The impulses from those regions are then sent up the spine all the way to the MPC, where they reach consciousness in an integrated fashion. It is not easy to distinguish true (integrated) intuition from false intuition.

The best advice I can give with regards to intuition is to pay attention to the signals and messages coming from all four levels of processing, the gut, the heart, the head and the spirit, and observe how they relate to each other. If they are in conflict, the conflict needs to be understood. It can mean many different things. The gut may be right, but our parents’ influence on us was to ignore the body and we end up defaulting into the head, even when it is wrong. The heart may be wrong because as children we learned to accept our parents’ dysfunctional marriage as normal, but we don’t listen to the head because we are in love. I could go on with many more examples. If all four are in sync, chances are you are on the right track. If there is a conflict between two or more of them, you need the wisdom from the MPC to discern which one is right. That is not always an easy or clear decision. At the end of the day, the more complete your capacity to be consciously embodied, the greater your intuition’s power to guide you.

To come back to our story, what applies to intuition also applies to the stories we create. To be coherent, they require accurate processing on all four levels of the gut, the heart, the head and the spirit. In addition, we also need to be clear on what type of story we create. If it is a scientific one, it requires scientific rigour. If it is an intuitive one, it needs to be meaningful and compelling in a complete embodied and intuitive fashion, the same way Hamlet is the expression of timeless truths about human existence without them being scientifically true. So if in Terzani’s shoes I felt that the psychic protected me and guided me in the right direction, it wouldn’t be because I believed the events were linked by a scientifically causal connection (although there theoretically could be one and science has just not progressed to the point yet of being able to explain our ability to predict the future), but because with these events I created a psychologically and existentially meaningful story my left brain can accept as such.

Copyright © 2015 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.

By |2015-09-30T20:57:54+00:00September 30th, 2015|Mindfulness|