Two Skeptics Discuss: What is Intuition?

Two old pals hanging out near the longing of great hearts.

Two old pals hanging out near the longing of great hearts.

Panio and I met when we both lived in New York shortly after we graduated from college. We worked in book publishing: he at Crown, me at Harcourt. Our love of books was at the center of our lives. He's always been (and will always be) a writer. I thought of myself (and probably always will) as a reader. We've now been friends for over 15 years.

We talk about life the way that old friends do, investigating the world that surrounds us together. If you read this Q&A, you'll see why Panio is one of my favorite people to talk to. 

I asked him if we could dig into this topic together for The Beautiful Voyager crowd. He was game! 

M: You and I were recently talking about how as we're getting older (we both turned 40 this year) we're both finally learning to listen to our intuition be it about work or what to do on a Saturday. What's the deal? Why didn't we listen to our intuition before?

P: There were surely a number of factors; the biggest one for me was that intuition works in the realm of feelings. We’re a skeptical society, data driven, rationality loving, it’s brain-brain-brain all the time, and for a long time I played into that. When faced with a decision, if I’d feel a twinge of something, urging me to do or not do something, I’d push it aside and try to reason my way through it instead for all the good that did. There’s that moment when you just know something is a terrible idea, that this job or project or person is a bad fit and going to make you unhappy, and yet you willfully disregard the feeling and do it anyway because there’s no clear reason not to. And then? It blows up in your face. Or vice versa, this sense that here’s a thing you should absolutely do, but the math doesn’t add up, so you let it go only to regret it. Those experiences had to happen enough times for me to concede that maybe something I was feeling could be right, that feeling can trump thought, not just in my heart, but out in the world.

M: Is it intuition the right word for it? That's a word with bad connotations, right?

P: It’s true, it’s got lousy connotations sounds childish or imaginary. “Gut” is much more respected, but I think that’s probably just sexism at play, as men love to talk about going with their gut. And “instinct” isn’t quite right because it doesn’t get at the idea that there’s learning behind intuition. I wish there were a word that combines wisdom with self-knowledge. There probably is — in German.  

M: What kind of advice would you give your kids about intuition? How do you think intuition is informed by experience — how do you think it changes over time?

P: That’s perfect framing, because I often think of intuition as being like a parent. It frequently tells you something you don’t really want to know right now. Like your mom or dad, intuition has your best interest at heart — it’s trying to help you, to protect you — but especially when you’re younger, you just don’t want to hear it, because then you’ll have to do something other than the careless thing you really want to do.

You’ve got a young child, like I do, so I’m sure you’ve seen Frozen. I remember during my first viewing, when Anna meets the dashing prince and he’s sweeping her off her feet, I found myself thinking, “What’s he hiding? This is too easy. This can’t be right.” And then he turns out to be a devious asshole and it was almost a relief, because like every parent in the audience I knew something was off. To be fair, that’s not a great example of intuition at play, that one’s more about identifying storytelling tropes, but they’re really not that different. In many ways, I see intuition as a kind of highly nuanced pattern recognition. It’s our brain sorting through all of these set-ups and inputs and consequences and then trying to ferret out what’s causality, so that we can replicate the good results and avoid the bad results going forward. There’s a pretty sophisticated set of data that needs to be gathered, with all sorts of false positives that we need to learn to discard. And then the really hard part the results get translated into feelings. Which we have to then acknowledge and interpret, another highly nuanced skill that takes time to develop.   

So, long-winded advice… pay attention to what you’re feeling. Don’t ignore it. Don’t belittle it. You don’t have to act on it impulsively, or at all, but at the very least, listen to what you’re trying to tell yourself through your body.

M: Should everyone be listening to their intuition, or do some people have bad intuition?

P: That’s a fascinating idea: bad intuition. I always assumed everyone had good intuition but they responded to it with varying degrees of appreciation. Of course there are people who always seem to make that key mistake again and again what if they’re just following earnest yet terrible inner advice? I hope that’s not the case.    

M: Intuition is a weird concept but it seems important.

P: Yes, though I haven’t always been great about listening to intuition, I’ve been drawn to it. In fact, last week I went back to a novel I started writing when I was 26 and saw that the first line was “He should have known better.” So even back then I was obsessed with this idea that we intuitively know things, and yet for all sorts of reasons pride, fear, desire we discount them. At its heart, intuition is about identifying and communicating the truth. We live in an era that privileges reason above all else it’s been that way for centuries but there are limits to just applying intellectual analysis to our lives. It’s cognitively exhausting, and it’s not entirely accurate. It reminds me of how behavioral economics has come to dominate the field, because this idea of a “rational actor” has been disproven over and over by actual human experience. Intuition exists in this hazy yet critical realm between intellect and emotion. And it’s tailored to you. It’s made by you and it makes you. It’s your parent and your child. What’s more important than that?  

Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts about intuition, friend. I am so glad to have you in my life!

Panio Gianopoulos is a writer and editor based in NYC. His work has appeared in Tin House, Northwest Review, Salon, The Brooklyn Rail, The Rattling Wall, Big Fiction, Catamaran Literary Reader, Chicago Quarterly Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. He is the author of the novella A Familiar Beast and a forthcoming collection of short stories, How to Get Into Our House and Where We Keep the Money.