Tuning Into Your Intuition and the Science Behind It

It’s common to meet the idea of intuition with skepticism. We tend to value logic over everything else, using expressions like “think before you act,” “think twice,” and “look before you leap.” We don’t trust intuition. In fact, we believe it’s flawed and fanciful thinking, either vaguely crazy or outright foolish. After all, good decisions should always be reasoned.

What we don’t realize, however, is that intuition is a form of cognition that can actually improve our decision-making.

What is intuition?

You can think of it as an instinct or gut feeling. An inner awareness or wisdom. The internal compass that guides you. Our instincts are meant to keep us away from danger and near safety in a complex world—and even save your life.

It’s an elegant, fine-tuned, and incredibly rapid form of perception. Intuition is a form of cognition meant to guide us and alert us to things we might not otherwise be able to see.

When we speak about our intuition, we often talk of it as a feeling. Something “feels” off, though we can’t necessarily explain why.

We’ve all had gut feelings that we can’t explain. Sometimes, a decision you’re making seems reasonable but doesn’t feel right. Conversely, you may be compelled to do something that seems unreasonable but feels right. The brain is always receiving, perceiving, and processing information that leads you to gain knowledge our logical mind doesn’t always understand or have access to.

The science of intuition

Joseph Mikels, professor of psychology at DePaul University, has researched intuition as an emotional process that can lead to better decision-making, especially when matters are complex. His research shows that when you’re making a complex decision with lots of information to weigh, you’re more likely to choose the right path if you consult your intuition—your feelings—rather than debating the matter solely with reason. He found this to be especially true for older adults whose cognitive faculties might not always be as sharp as younger people’s, showing that intuition is even more critical with age.

The U.S. military—always trying to find ways to maximize human performance—has been investigating intuition for decades under various names. Commander Joseph Cohn, a research psychologist at the Office of Naval Research, describes why soldiers’ experiences inspired the military to continue researching intuition: “Reports from the field often detailed a ‘sixth sense’ or ‘Spidey sense’ that alerted them to an impending attack or IED or that allowed them to respond to a novel situation without consciously analyzing the situation.” We don’t always have time for lengthy deliberation, especially in critical or life-and-death situations. We sometimes need access to information in a lightning-fast way.

There were so many accounts of soldiers returning from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars reporting how gut feelings helped them save lives that the military continues to research the phenomenon to this day. The Department of Defense has opened up several new research projects under different names, like the Navy’s “sensemaking,” to look at this phenomenon.

Intuition is nothing new, of course. “Many Indigenous communities in the Americas and in Africa have relied on intuition for survival—intuition of the environment, of the earth, of threats to humanity,” says Dr. Dena Simmons, education scholar, author, and founder of LiberatED, an organization that develops school-based resources to promote social and emotional learning, racial justice, and healing. “It’s too bad that this wisdom isn’t respected more and that we do not look to the knowledge of those before us as a guide.”

How to build your intuition

Awareness is key to empowerment. As you start to make room for intuitive insights, you’ll find your awareness deepens further. By making time and space for intuition to arise, you’ll have greater insight into yourself and the world.


Think back on decisions you made in which you ignored your gut feelings. What were the consequences of those decisions? What about times in which you did follow your gut? How did you feel about it—was it scary? How did others feel about it? What were the consequences? What did you learn? Journal or reflect on these questions.

Consult your gut feelings

When you need to make decisions, make it a habit to also consult your feelings on the matter. How do you do that? When you need to make a decision between options A and B, for example, sit with your eyes closed for a moment. How do you feel about each option? You might notice one makes you tense up while the other makes you feel relaxed. This will take practice. You may not notice much at first. Try it in different situations, when you’re dealing with people, for example.

Make room for quiet

Our intuition is dimmed if we are constantly listening to news, opinions, and entertainment. Shut out the noise for a little while. Amplify time for listening to something other than the loud and raucous everyday.

Schedule idle time

Instead of always trying to be productive, having the music on, scanning your phone for news and notifications, and engaging with someone or something, make time to allow your mind to daydream, to be in an unfocused space. You don’t have to carve out special time for this. Just choose not to take calls or listen to podcasts while you’re driving Walk your dog or go grocery shopping without your phone so you have time to just be, rather than focusing on your screen. Take hikes without your technology. Allow your mind to be in a gently unfocused state that is receptive to novel ideas, insights, and innovation.

Excerpted with permission from by Emma Seppälä, Ph.D.