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Friday, August 26, 2011

Training Your Intuition

Intuition is often either knocked as superstitious (by Logic Brain types) or embraced as a mystical power (by Creative Brain types). (p.s. my brain is half of each; they fight a lot.)

I'm beginning to think intuition is our own personal superpower.

On vacation, I picked up a magazine at a local bookstore in Leadville, CO, and read aloud in the car (best way to quell the insurrection in the back seat). The article claimed about 95% of what we know is actually knowledge stored in our unconscious, with only the remaining 5% available for conscious recall.

The article used an example based on driving. When drivers were asked to consciously describe the steps involved in changing lanes, they were unable to do it correctly. However, they could all perform the motions easily when actually driving. They had long ago learned how to change lanes, and after many repetitions, the process gets "forgotten" by the conscious mind, turning into a kind of "muscle memory" familiar to pianists and athletes.

It doesn't just work for physical tasks, though. Much of what we know, we have trained our brain to understand. We don't have to recall a particular knowledge consciously, to deploy it (very successfully) on intuition alone. The fact that you can read this sentence without sounding out the words is evidence of a complex task you learned a long time ago and now perform without consciously thinking about it.

My husband is a great example of this, having done tremendous amounts of engineering calculations and design work over many years. I often tell him that his off-the-top-of-his-head guess about a mechanical design is better than most people's calculations. And it is. Because he knows how mechanics and structural properties and stresses work. He's trained his intuition in mechanical design.

I think the same applies to writing.

When I'm learning a new concept (to me) about writing - whether craft or storytelling or process - I have to repeat it. Again and again, preferably with an actual WiP. Then there comes a point where I don't have to consciously think about it (as much). I can feel it seeping into my unconscious. I've trained my intuition to know how to use active verbs or how to build rising tension.

I believe we all have trained our intuitions with years (and decades) of reading great stories. Tapping into that intuition, listening to that gut feel about your story, can open an avenue to reaping the knowledge you have (but may not realize) about storytelling.

And all that time you're spending learning new craft? Someday it's going to be as natural as breathing.

And that's a superpower if I've ever seen one.

(Note: I don't think writing ever gets easy. There is always the struggle to get words out of your brain and on to the page. But the product that comes out improves with the amount of training your intuition has received on which words to pick, when, and why. This is similar to the theory about writing a million bad words before writing good ones or laboring for 10,000 hours to become an expert in something. Both involve a lot of training of your intuition.)

How do you train your intuition?


  1. So true! Once we've been writing long enough certain areas come more naturally - like showing instead of telling.

  2. Interesting post! Makes me realize I could never pull off the math behind catching a ball (computing speed and trajectory of the object and the corresponding calculation to move my arm, hand, and fingers to make the catch). But I can catch. Most of the time.

    I feel my writing is getting better with age and practice. I attribute that to not making the same mistakes over and over, I do my best to learn from them. That's probably how I train my finding out what my mistakes are and understanding how to prevent them.

  3. I always tell my children to trust their intuition. It is our sixth sense, however dormant and unused in most. Just with your other senses, if used and more developed, relied upon, goes unnoticed.. We use our sight 100% of the time while awake and don't think twice about it. I can't imagine being without a sense, my biggest fear.

  4. If you find that interesting, you should really read Malcolm Gladwell's Blink - that could basically have been a cover blurb for it.

  5. The best way to train your intuition is to use it, and learn the little tricks that make it more manageable (using hooks for memory, etc).

    Intuition is misunderstood, but it probably belongs to those parts of the brain that we've forgotten how to use.

    So does that make the brain the next frontier?

    BTW Susan, I think the creative side has won the battle in my brain, as the logical side wasn't paying attention (too busy solving a problem).

  6. @Laura Exactly! Sometimes I have to bring things I know intuitively up from my subconscious, learn them again, and then let them settle back in.

    @Rick I love the math example! And the idea of about making mistakes and learning from them is very important. I learn so much from analyzing why I made a mistake (not just "don't do this"), that it often leads to my greatest leaps in writing.

    @Miranda Ew, that would creep me out as well. Like a part of you is cut off. *shudders*

    @Bryan I've had that on my TBR forever - I need to read it! :)

  7. It does always amaze me that I can look at these little symbols on the page or the screen and translate them into ideas and images in my brain. It's a pretty cool skill, if I do say so myself. Our brains are amazing.

  8. @DG LOL! Logic Brain, owned. :) And I like the idea of the brain as the next frontier! I can totally see some book ideas coming from that. :)

  9. @Steph Brains rock. And little brains (kids) are just as cool - I think we underestimate their capabilities a lot. :)

  10. Love this post! Something I haven't thought about much, but it's 100% true!

  11. I completely agree! It's funny, as I've been going over my first draft, I see how the actual quality of the writing changes! The beginning of the book isn't as good as the end (which isn't a great thing to have), but I can see how my style has changed over the course of a single novel!

  12. @Lindsay Thanks!

    @Jess Go you! :) You're doing exactly what you should - learning like crazy. :)

  13. Great post! I think you can train your brain to do a lot. I love following my intuition. It's so much smarter than I am. ;)

  14. Woo-hoo! Love this post! So much good and bad can happen based on how we view intuition...I do think some people have intuition that's sharper than other's...sharper from USE, I'll bet.

  15. @Kelly Ah, but you ARE your intuition. It's like you, and all your prior selves. And it IS very smart. :) Happy Weekend!

  16. @Anita Ooh, I like that image of sharpening it with use. Nice. :)

  17. I think talent is all about intuition. Think about it- we are always good at things we have a good intuition at.

  18. @Shreyonti I think talent is a whole separate thing - a starting point, if you will. I think talent can be grown, just like intuition, but you can't rely completely on either. You have to be always striving to add to that bank of knowledge, whether conscious or subconscious. Thanks for the great comment! :)

  19. I'm a big advocate of the right vs. left brain theories. They fascinate me. I think writing is a beautiful partnership between the right brain's limitless imagination and the left brain's ability to communicate it.

  20. @Leslie I love that description of right and left working together. I swear I can feel the different parts of my brain kicking in for different modes of thinking. Happy Weekend!

  21. Loved this post! The example with your husband, so neat to see how he's developed his super power and then how you related this developed intuition with writing. I'm a believer!


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