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Brain Behavior and Intuition

By: , Posted on: October 9, 2014

Human Behavior in Hazardous Situations - CoverWe see ourselves as conscious and rational beings knowing we do things. From brain research we have learned that decisions are also influenced by areas are that are lacking both language and logic. Sometimes we realize that a decision is not made on purely rational grounds and this is intuition. But what is intuition and can we invest our trust in it? That’s the subject of the next two posts.


The dictionary describes intuition as “the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning”. Apparently it’s easier to describe what intuition is not, than what it actually is. In this text intuition is defined as an awareness that unconscious meaning and direction influence us. We can’t substantiate that direction with arguments and facts, and only note that “it feels good.” Intuition is a knowing that we do not know how we know.

How does the brain direct behavior?

Our brain is the end result of millions of years of development, during which new features are added to existing ones. Making choices is one of the oldest and most central brain functions. Our lives depend on it. During the process of defining what to do, many brain areas are involved. All these areas seek to exert influence and therefore send signals to a coordinating area. One might think that this area holds the free will, but it isn’t the boss or mayor of the brain. It rather is a vote counter that regularly holds a kind of referendum. The result is called a choice.

The complexity of a choice

Choices are therefore far from simple. Each brain function fights for its own interest and delivers its own input. Instinctive needs, rational considerations, perceptions, memory, and motor capabilities make their own contributions. Sometimes, the contribution of the ratio are stronger, sometimes our instincts beat the rest. One moment we really want to lose weight, the next moment we can’t resist the sensation to indulge in that lovely glass of wine.

Conscious and unconscious

Some contributions come from areas with strong ties to language. We can articulate these contributions as arguments, we hear ourselves think. Other contributions come from completely unconscious brain areas. We are not directly aware of these inputs, but we might experience a sort of influence on our decision process. At such moment we talk about intuition.

Gut feeling

But if we do not know how we know, how do we then get in touch with our intuition? Let’s use as an example the fear of snakes. This fear is a genetically programmed part of our instincts. Once we sense a snake on our path, our system indicates that further walking is undesirable. Our instincts direct both our perception (focus + wider pupils) and our physiology (blocking movements, raising blood pressure, preparing for action). Perceiving danger also raises mild intestinal contractions, originally intended to remove spoiled food as fast as possible. This function is the origin of the expression “gut feeling”: the senses in the gut tell us that our intuition has detected a possible danger. Our instincts leave many different traces that give us an indirect clue of what is happening in our brain. We call this intuition. The better we listen to these physiological traces, the more we can rely on our intuition.

Instincts and safety

Instincts play a major role within our unconscious processes. They originally ensured the survival of a species but nowadays also help each person to give direction to their lives. Generating safety for ourselves and our environment is one of the basic tasks of our instincts. As long as we are able to honor the voice of these instincts, we rarely act in an unsafe way. Stating it differently, listening to our intuition helps us to act safely.

Instincts and rules

The pace of new developments is increasing so much that we can’t rely any longer on the fruits of evolution to safeguard us. For areas like traffic, industry or hygiene, we create artificial instincts called rules. These rules compensate for the slow pace at which our DNA can adjust to the needs of the fast changing environment. Up to now, these rules have been very effective in guarding our safety. The problem is that there no longer is a place for intuition or instincts in handling these rules. We seem to forget that much of our behavior does not stem from deliberate choices and that formal rules can direct only part of our actions. The consequence is that the power of intuition, the miracle of human evolution, is no longer involved in our safety management approach.


Looking from a broader perspective, safety management is an example of the tendency within our society to deny the power of intuition. In general, we force ourselves to explain why we do something, and we tend to ignore the subtle sensations that are generated by our intuition. Our body is like a harp issuing many meaningful and valuable signals. The more attention we pay to these signals, the greater their impact will be in the process of defining behavior. By listening to our intuition we can restore a balance in which all aspects of our existence contribute equally to our lives. It will make the process of choosing easier and our lives safer.

Read more posts from Juni on human behavior in hazardous situations:

About the Author

Jan DaalmansJuni Daalmans is author of Human Behavior in Hazardous Situations and works for the Daalmans Organizational Development Office. Save 30% on your very own copy of Juni’s book. Just enter “SAVE3013” at checkout.

He regularly posts to his blog Brain Based Safety and can be found on twitter @BrainBasedSafet.

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