Richard G. Petty, MD

Instinct and Intuition

“The only real valuable thing is intuition.” –Albert Einstein (German-born American Physicist and, in 1921, Winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, 1879-1955)

One of the problems of psychology is the frequent misuse of terms, which end up confusing everyone! I can think of at least one book that has the word “Instinct” in the title, when in actual fact the book is all about intuition!

So what’s the difference between the two, and why does it matter? An instinct is an inborn pattern of behavior that is often a direct response to specific environmental stimuli. Instincts are characteristic of a species, so they would include things like the spawning instinct in salmon, which leads them to swim hundreds of miles to return to the river in which they were spawned. A more complex example would be the instinct to altruism that we see in social animals. Instincts are powerful behavioral motivators. In humans, instinct is also used to describe an innate aptitude or capability.

There is also another major type of instinct, that we call the “somatic marker mechanism” (SMM). Over the last decade, Antonio Damasio, from the University of Iowa has been developing an extraordinary concept. He has been looking at the way in which bodily changes are represented in the brain in the form of what he calls “somatic markers.” He has proposed that the way the body responds to a situation lets the brain know how the individual feels about an experience. That marker can then be used in future emotional assessments. We think that this could be the basis of “gut reactions.” In fact there’s a very nice book that came out recently that develops some of these ideas. This mechanism supports social intelligence, integrating “somatic” or body states that correspond to emotional responses with the social situations that triggered those emotional responses in the first place. So emotions are body states represented in the brain. Humans and perhaps some apes are aware of these emotions, and when we are aware of our emotions, we call them feelings.

Intuition is quite a different faculty, but one that probably originally emerged from instincts. It is the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning. For when we speak of intuition, we are talking about faculties that are available to all of us all the time, but which are often dormant.

As the famous Swiss Physiognomist, Theologian and Writer, Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801) put it: “Intuition is the clear concept of the whole at once.”

I am certain that one of the most valuable things that you can do for yourself is to develop your intuition to help you make choices, and in future posts I shall spend some time taking you through some of the time-tested techniques for doing that. I will also give you tips on how to avoid being misled by false intuitions. In other words how to verify your intuitions and ensure that the answers that you get have objective reality.

"Intuition is a spiritual faculty and does not explain, but simply points the way.” Florence Scovel Shinn (American Artist, Metaphysics Teacher and Author, 1871-1940)

“By learning to contact, listen to, and act on our intuition, we can directly connect to the higher power of the universe and allow it to become our guiding force.” –Shakti Gawain (American Writer and Teacher on Human Potential, 1948-)

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.


2 Responses to “Instinct and Intuition”
  1. Jim Pfrommer says:

    It IS so important that any terms used in scientific endevors be defined so that they can be agreed upon.

    So, growth would be about becoming aware of when it is appropriate to override our instincts, as we strive to refine our intuition ?

  2. Richard Petty says:

    A large portion of the work that I do on intuition is to try to help people get used to checking their intuitions. It’s the quickest way to grow the ability.

    I would go a step further: my particular interest is in helping people to live in total harmony with their envionment. Then you “know” full well whether you should be crossing the street. And whether your instinct to get out of the room when someone is agitated is correct, or if you are over-reacting.

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