Making science (part III): Intuition

Intuition is as important in science as it is in the arts and any other creative activity. Intuition can allow the formulation of novel ideas or solutions to complex problems that would otherwise be difficult or improbable to reach via conventional, logical reasoning. Although the popular term “gut feeling” would appear to indicate that intuitive processes take place outside the brain, it is a misplaced metaphor, as intuition is very much a mental activity.

As in conventional reasoning, intuitive thinking computes the odds of competing ideas or solutions. Unlike the former, however, the intuitive process is largely unconscious. We are only aware of the result of the computation but not the process by which it was obtained. It is nevertheless a mental calculation like any other: it utilizes data stored in memory to deduce connections, predict missing bits of information, or generate new hypotheses.

Unlike conscious reasoning, intuitive thinking takes place off-line. However, it is possible to direct, facilitate and enhance intuitive thinking, even though the process itself will always remain unavailable to conscious, on-line processing. Intuitive computations are intrinsically soft, but can be made more robust by increasing the amount of data available to intuitive processing. In science, this amounts to acquire as much information and experience as possible by reading extensively, brain-storming with colleagues and sitting at the bench.

There is a neurobiological basis for intuition.Regions of the brain involved in intuitive thinking are likely to show some overlap with areas involved in normal conscious reasoning.Antonio Damasio is one of several scientists currently investigating this and related questions. He has highlighted the importance of emotional states, largely under the influence of peripheral organs (i.e. body viscera and such), in decision-making processes including intuitive thinking. Damasio has identified patients with lesions in specific brain areas that show deficits in risk-taking, decision-making and intuitive reasoning. It is likely that different brains are able to support intuitive processing to different extents. Do non-human primates have intuition? Proof for the evolution of intuition will clearly have to await a better understanding of its hardware. However, its important contribution to decision-making processes suggests that it may have been positively selected in humans.

Intuition is a real mental process that is crucial for creativity. It can not be completely controlled, but it can be trained and enhanced. Sure enough, not all reasoning in science is intuitive, but given the shear volume of scientific data and information currently available (and constantly increasing), intuitive thinking is an indispensable allied in scientific creativity.