A couple of weeks ago, I asked one of my academic and openly skeptical/critical friends to play devil’s advocate with me. It’s a dangerous game, and one that I thoroughly recommend if you want to test your ideas out!
In the course of our conversation, one line of questioning in particular got me thinking, testing, turning over and challenging my ideas and understandings of intuitive things.
How do you know intuition is not something else? That is, what makes your experience an ”intuitive” one, and not an ordinary five-senses experience?
Are you certain that you have to add something new – i.e. intuition – to the picture to be able to explain your experience?
Talk about testing your views in the fire of experience.
These questions really challenged me to think hard and long about what the heck ”intuitive experience” is. My confidence was challenged – threatened, you could say – and I really wasn’t sure how to proceed. How to continue doing intuitive things, when they might be simple five-sense experiences. How confident was I that my experiences were not simply something ordinary? Or a matter of subconscious sensory processing?
Fear entered the frame… and helped me out.
The thing about fear is that it’s a composite experience. It’s a combination of thoughts – recollections and imaginings – plus emotions, physical sensations, brain signals, and chemical hormonal responses. And yet we talk about fear as a real and distinct thing. It’s a mode, or a mood. It’s recognisable from human to human, even recognisable in animals too – just watch a rescue-dog respond in terror to a rolled-up newspaper and you’ll see fear writ large.
Going forward from this composite description of fear, we can also agree on other states, all of which have multiple components. Anger, happiness, excitement, depression, joy, contentment. For each of these we can put together a list of characteristics. We can describe the typical thought experiences, emotions, physical responses, and with the fruits of research, we can also describe some of the brain signal patterns and hormonal changes associated with each state. This gives us a baseline for how to define a human experience.
And yet, what is the heart of these experiences? Can we say that the thought is the true ”home” of fear? Is anger solely defined by a type of physiological arousal? Is contentment a hormonal state of being, that leads to certain thoughts, emotions, and so forth? It appears to me that we have descriptions of these states, and we can largely agree on their distinctive characteristics, but we can’t yet pin down the exact home or key feature of any of them.
I suggest that each of these states, moods, experiences – call them what you will – can only be described as a composite, and that each state has a distinctive set of characteristics that make it what it is. Going forward from this, if we can describe something with a unique set of characterisitcs, perhaps we can say that this something is a distinct thing, not previously described or categorised.
When it comes to holding ”intuitive experience” up against my friend’s questions, I needed to describe the experience in terms of its distinctive qualities. With these qualities pinned down, I could then compare them with other human experiences. From that comparison, I could determine how much of it overlaps – i.e. how much can be explained by another already-existing description. Bear in mind that I’m limited at this point in time to the physical, thought and emotional characteristics, since I’m unfortunately without the latest in brain and hormone observation kit.
Let me describe a few experiences that, for me at least, come into the category of ”intuitive”. In the descriptions that follow, I’m drawing on my years of meditation experience which has sensitised me to things such as where physically I experience sensations of thinking and seeing. To replicate my method, first meditate over the course of several years, and pay attention to different qualities of thought (e.g. imagination, memory, planning, opening up to undirected imagination, amongst others) and identify any physical sensations that correlate with thoughts, and over time build up a map of the general types of thoughts that occur, and the general characteristics of the physical sensations that accompany those thoughts.
Also bear in mind as you read that your sensory experience will be different to mine: we’ll have different response profiles. I”ll be the first to admit that my hearing’s not that sensitive. I can’t hear certain high frequencies, for example, and I struggle to pick out particular sounds in a hubbub. Anyone who’s been down the pub with me on a noisy night will attest to that!
So, some descriptions of distinctive qualities of experience that I label “intuitive”. You’ll see some overlap between the descriptions since some experiences have more than one sense experience associated with them.
Distinctive five-sense features of ”intuitive experience”
Visual: images that seem to represent the situation at hand, usually experienced in the same area of my head (a ”screen” in the upper back left area); colours associated with or around people; images that show physical or emotional ailments in the body – when checked out with the person concerned, the images ring true for their physical/emotional condition; uncreated – I don’t deliberately imagine a picture, I let myself see what’s there, or I ask what’s there and wait to see it.
Tactile: tingles in the left upper front area of my scalp that I’ve learned through observation to associate with times when I’m really speaking my truth; yes/no kinesiology – my feet, hands, fingers, and whole body can give me a felt sense of “yes, proceed” or “no, stop”; being drawn to touch, massage, stroke, or press my own body or other people’s bodies (with permission!) in ways that seem to give swift relief and/or release; deep and subtle knowing.
Gustatory/tactile: this is a new, and gradually in development sense for me – I get a mouth-feel experience of people’s names. These mouth-feels I can interpret into characteristics of a person. [For the curious: this developed as a result of meeting Mary Hykel-Hunt, who sees people’s names as colours and shapes which she interprets. When prompted by Mary to investigate my own response to people’s names, the mouth-feel was the dominant experience. Weird, heh?]
Visual/tactile(/auditory?): writing things that I don’t know I’m going to write until I’ve written them. I see the word on the page, or I feel my hand wanting to move the in a certain direction. I list this associated with auditory because it’s the generation of words. I’m not often aware of hearing voices, but I do experience thoughts that seem to come from somewhere other than my own mind.
Olfactory: I have had one olfactory ”intuitive experience” – a woman was describing how she smells an unusual smell at key moments in her life, and there’s no apparent source for the smell. She didn’t describe it. I concentrated on what she was saying, opened up my experience (meditate to know what I mean here) and faintly smelled something. I described it to her and she said that it matched her experience.
Distinctive emotional features of ”intuitive experience”
Some intuitive experiences feel emotionless to me. They are clear. If I had to associate an emotion with the experience, it would be a peaceful one.
There’s also a sense of certainty. This certainty is not the same certainty of “I know I”m right” that I might experience in the heat of an argument. It’s a clear and obvious kind of certainty. The ceiling is up there – yes it is. The floor is down there – yes it is. Factual certainty. And yet sometimes the certainty doesn’t appear to be based on any five-sense experience. I’m not aware that I’ve processed sense experiences and come up with a certain understanding of them. But nonetheless there is a sense of certainty there.
When I have an experience that seems relevant to another person, such as receiving some information for them, I feel a detached concern for the message and the person, and at the same time an urge to deliver the message. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable and need toÂ muster up some courage to deliver the information, but most frequently the information is received with understanding and appreciation. The feedback I receive indicates that the information is timely, useful and appropriate, and often generates a surprised “how did you know that?” remark.
Sometimes, an intuitive experience or knowing sparks a sense of beauty in me. The beauty of Truth. An aesthetic appreciation of Truth that goes beyond my rational or mundane experience.
Distinctive thought/mental features of ”intuitive experience”
Clear knowing: a hunch. Not an ”unconsidered thought” type of hunch, but something stronger.
Unusual thoughts: over the years, you get used to your mind and the general kinds of thoughts that you think. They’re like old clothes, soft, familiar, well-worn. Then an unusual thought wanders in and you think “where the heck did you come from?” – then you find out that it’s totally relevant to the person or situation you’re in.
Thoughts sometimes come later: intuitive experience often comes in first through the visual or tactile, for me, and then needs to be interpreted.
A certain quality of expansiveness, something that feels ”bigger than me”. Not in the way that a house is bigger than me, or a ferry is. But in the sense that I’m plugged in to something bigger. Am I making it up? Have I read too many books, novels, magazines? Or is this simply the best explanation and description I can come up with?
As the descriptions above might seem a little terse or over-concise, I’ll give a few examples.
The first images I recollect seeing and categorising as ”intuitive” were at a time when I was uncertain about the relationship that I was in. I idly asked myself the question “what does this relationship look like?” and saw an image on my ”screen”. In the image, he and I were holding onto each other very tightly with one hand, and we were straining hard to move in opposite directions. Subconscious processing? Metaphorical interpretation? Could be either, or both, or neither.
One of the most striking visuals I’ve experienced was in a Buddhist study group with a visiting teacher. I asked myself what I could see on my ”screen”. Immediately the picture unfolded in front of me. A beautiful and huge enlightened woman became visible to me, supporting each of us in the group on lotus pads. The visiting teacher was plugged in, Matrix-style, directly to the enlightened woman, and he was floating on a lotus pad higher up than the rest of us in the group. All of this on my ”screen” overlaid what I was actually seeing with my eyes, somewhat like I imagine in the 3D pattern posters that you have to squint at (not that I’ve ever managed to see the 3D image in one of those posters). Again: subconscious processing? Metaphorical interpretation? Vivid imagination?
Sometimes, I know, on what physically feels like a deep and subtle level, what’s going to happen. There are two occasions I’ll mention here. The first of these happened almost ten years ago. I was at a camping event, and I knew that I’d be moving to the county that it was held in. I can’t explain how I knew. It wasn’t where I was living, nor was it somewhere I’d contemplated living. But sure enough, a couple of months later I was offered a PhD place in that county, and I accepted. The second time was when my husband applied for a job overseas. I knew that we’d be moving. I had this deep-down knowing that we’d go, even well before his interview. He got the job, we moved overseas. Let’s test these experiences with a few questions. Have I had these deep-knowing experiences and they’ve turned out to be wrong? I don’t recall any. Is it subconscious processing at work? I don’t think I could have subconsciously processed the outcomes of my husband’s interviews… so how did I have this deep confidence about moving first to the county in question, then later abroad? Is it retrospective pattern matching? I don”t think so.
Other times, I feel very strongly prompted to say things! I was once talking with a friend about her art. She works in print, and I know a bare smattering about art. She was talking about developing her art and trying new media. On my ”screen” I saw big movements of vibrant colour, and I had the word ”pastels” come to mind several times. I felt urged to ask her about pastels, even though we hadn’t been talking about them at all. Eventually, I asked her if she’d ever worked with pastels. Yes! A good while ago, she said, her whole being lighting up as she talked about the joy and expansiveness of working with oil pastels. And yet how did I know? Why was my inner screen and inner thought jumping up and down so much about pastels and big movements with vibrant colours? It’s not as though I was itching to ask her about charcoal, or watercolours, or clay. Nor was it a simple addition to a conversation about general art media. Can I explain this as subconscious processing at work – had I picked up observable clues about my friend’s art history and current needs for expressiveness? Can I explain the felt urge by randomness? And why is this urge to communicate seemingly random things so consistent in its hit rate?
There’s quite a number of ”intuitive experience” characteristics listed above. And yet can they be explained by:
b) subsconscious processing of sense data
c) something else
Reflecting on and around the characteristics of intuitive experience led me to another perspective on the question. So far, I’ve not been able to explain my intuitive experiences using the normal descriptions of human experience. But nor have I been able to totally discount that there may exist a five-sense + emotions + brain signals + hormones explanation of the experience.
What strikes me throughout are the qualities of the experience. These qualities help me to identify and define it. The quality of unknown origin. The quality of clarity/certainty without the harshness of “I’m right”. The quality of being spot-on when shared with others. The quality of being self-consistent.
Going back to the experience of fear: when we feel afraid, we don’t worry so much about what fear is, where it comes from, or how it has arisen; we’re only bothered about what the fear is telling us and responding to it.
In the same way, I’m happy to label as “intuitive” the collection of experiences characterised above. I’m happy to respond to them in the ways that have so far worked for me. I’m happy to share the intuitive information that I receive with others, based on my experience that usually it’s useful, relevant and helpful. I’m happy to respond to my intuition with trust, with curiosity, with tests, and with openness to the possibility that one day my “intuitive” experiences might be completely described as normal human experience.
What questions do you want to ask about intuition?
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Sue Mahony PhD is gifted, autistic, and ADHD. She provides 1:1 specialist support for brains similar to her own, neurodiversity training, mentoring & coaching for organisations, and a wealth of articles on this website.
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