When my husband and I shopped for our first house, we looked at more than 20 properties on the market. None of them seemed to fit our detailed checklist of the perfect home. I grew frustrated and called my mom. "Forget the list," she said. "When you walk in the front door of your house, you'll just know it." Three days later, as I stepped onto the slightly sloping porch of a charming 1926 Spanish stucco three-bedroom with our Realtor, I realized my mother was right. It had only one bathroom and desperately needed paint and a new air-conditioning unit, but somehow, I knew I was home.
Intuition, or a sixth sense, is something many of us rely on for snap judgments and often life-altering decisions. But what exactly is it? A 2008 study in the British Journal of Psychology defined intuition as what happens when the brain draws on past experiences and external cues to make a decision -- but it happens so fast that the reaction is at an unconscious level.
When heart specialist John M. Kennedy, M.D., of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, stands at the scrub sink before an operation, he breathes deeply with seven-count exhales, visualizing how he wants the procedure to go. "Athletes use these techniques to perform under pressure, but we can all call on them in our regular lives," Dr. Kennedy says. It starts with knowing what kind of breathing works best for the challenge you're facing. Here's what the latest research shows.
But that's only part of it, says Judith Orloff, MD, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA and author of Guide to Intuitive Healing: Five Steps to Physical, Emotional, and Sexual Wellness. "Just like the brain, there are neurotransmitters in the gut that can respond to environmental stimuli and emotions in the now -- it's not just about past experiences," she says. When those neurotransmitters fire, you may feel the sensation of "butterflies" or uneasiness in your stomach. Researchers theorize that "gut instinct," which sends signals to your brain, plays a large role in intuition.
Men and Intuition
And contrary to common belief, it's not just women who harbor this mysterious instinct. "Men can be powerfully intuitive -- they have the same capabilities as women," says Orloff. "But in our culture, we view intuition as something that's warm and fuzzy, or not masculine, so men have often lost touch with those feelings."
American women, on the other hand, are encouraged to be receptive to their inner thoughts, so it appears that they have more intuition than men, says Orloff. "The reality is, girls are praised for being sensitive while boys are urged to be more linear in their thinking rather than listening to their feelings," she says.
So how do you tune in? First, pay attention to your physical responses. "Maybe you're trying to decide if you should take a new job that pays twice the salary as your current one," says Orloff. "Your head says ‘Of course! That's a lot of money,' but you notice that you feel a little sick to your stomach or exhausted. That's an intuitive cue that you should step back and really examine the offer."