Richard G. Petty, MD

Unconscious Processing and Intuition

There is a very interesting paper in this week’s Journal Science. It is from a group working at the University of Amsterdam, and their findings are likely to turn one branch of psychology upside down. Let me explain the importance of this work, and how you can start to apply it in your own life.

What the researchers did was to divide their subjects into two groups. In the first experiment the subjects had to decide on a favorite car. One group used a conscious, intellectual reasoning approach and the other group was distracted with puzzles to keep their conscious minds busy before making the decision. When there were only four things to factor into the choice, the intellectuals did better. But when they had to choose on the basis of 12 factors the people using conscious decision-making did much worse than the people who had to make an immediate decision based on unconscious thought processes. In the second experiment shoppers were asked about their satisfaction with items that they had bought. People who bought on the basis of conscious deliberation were much happier with their choices of simple items, while the “unconscious” shoppers preferred their choices of more complex items.

Why is this so important? Since the Enlightenment, science has emphasized the benefits of conscious deliberation in decision-making, and has tended to look down on the whole notion of unconscious thought. Yet this study adds to the growing body of evidence that not only can people think unconsciously, but that for complex decisions, unconscious thought is actually superior. Conscious thought is like a bright torchlight that can only illuminate a few things at a time, and that can lead to some aspects of a problem being given undue attention.

This report supports something that many of us have been teaching for some time. Too much conscious deliberation can actually be counter-productive. Effective thinking needs us to get all the information necessary to make a decision. Then, if we are dealing with a simple decision use conscious thought. But if the decision is complex, it is best left to unconscious thought; in effect to sleep upon it. The answer then tends to appear very suddenly.

There is a secret about the way in which a great deal of progress is made: Most of the major advances in physics have come not from logical progression, but from mystical revelation: Albert Einstein and the theory of relativity, Max Planck and quantum theory, Erwin Schrödinger and wave mechanics, the list is a long one. The great Welsh mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell once said of Einstein, that the problem in understanding him was not a difficulty with his logic, but with Einstein’s imagination. He was able to let his mind go to places that others could not, and it came back with answers that nobody else could have conceived of. There is evidence that while most chess players spend virtually all of their time trying to calculate, strong players rely on unconscious processes for most of the game, and only calculate for short periods when their unconscious mind tells them too. There is even evidence from brain imaging studies that average players activate all the cognitive areas of the frontal lobes while playing, with some temporal lobe activity as they try to remember their lessons. By contrast, a chess master uses many regions of his brain at once, and only occasionally activates parts of his frontal lobes when calculation is required.

What this means for us is that we must not be afraid to turn complex problems over to our unconscious minds. I have also spent a great deal of time training people to get used to using their intuition, for this is really one aspect of what we are talking about here. In my book Healing, Meaning and Purpose, I have several sections on developing your intuition.

When you start learning to turn problems over to your unconscious mind, one of the most difficult things is to know when to trust it. So here are some tips:

1. Once you have an answer, now is the time to use your conscious mind to see if the answer that you’ve come up with makes sense.

2. Learn to trust yourself. That may take a little time, but if you have a problem with trusting yourself, you have something tangible to work on.

3. Always be certain that you are prepared to hear whatever answers you receive.

4. Use your intuition to evaluate your intuitions: does the answer “feel” right?

5. Don’t force the process: conscious deliberation follows a linear time scale, unconscious thinking does not; so let insights come in their own time.

6. Always promise yourself that you will take action on any decisions that you make. Your brain and mind will not likely be very cooperative if you ignore the fruits of your unconscious thinking!

“There is no such thing as a logical method of having new ideas…. Every great discovery contains an irrational element of creative intuition.” –Sir Karl Popper (Austrian-born British Philosopher, 1902-1994)

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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