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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

How Far Should You Trust Your Intuition?

IntuitionBy Rosanne Bane

Lieutenant Commander Michael Riley made the right decision when he followed his intuition that there was something wrong with the radar blip headed for the USS Missouri. It was an Iraqi missile, not an American fighter plane, and destroying it saved the Missouri.

Even in hindsight, Riley and other analysts couldn’t see anything in the radar tapes that would distinguish the missile’s blip from the fighter jets. At first, the Riley and the rest of the military thought Riley’s decision was a lucky guess, a risky gamble that paid off. Two years later, Gary Klein, a cognitive psychologist specializing in decision-making in high pressure situations, reviewed the tapes and saw what everyone else had missed. Everyone but Riley’s emotional brain that is.

Riley’s radar only detected signals over the ocean, so he was used to seeing American jets appear as soon as they left the Kuwait coast, which was within one radar sweep. Because the missile was flying at lower altitude, its signal was masked until it was further from the coast and it didn’t appear on Riley’s screen until three sweeps. The 8-second difference was too subtle for Riley and all those other naval officers to recognize with their conscious, rational minds even with repeated viewings. But it was a large enough deviation from the usual pattern to alert the emotional brain.

If you curious about how the brain uses dopamine to reward and motivate behavior and how the brain uses a dip in dopamine to send warning signals – which I find fascinating, but don’t have space to fully explore in this blog – I highly recommend reading Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide.

The point of this is not to prove the superiority of the emotional brain over the rational brain. The more I read of How We Decide, the clearer it became that there are some things the emotional, intuitive, unconscious mind excels at and other things the rational, analytic, conscious mind excels at. The trick is knowing when to rely on which part – and it’s not always what we think.

It turns out that Intuitive – Rational is another one of those polarities to be managed. (For more info on polarity management, read my Imagination InkLinks newsletters Some Go Both Ways, Group or Solo Artist? and Inspiration or Perspiration.) When to rely on intuition in your writing and when to impose rational order will be the focus of my next post and I’d appreciate your input and observations as I write that.

Do you follow your intuition early in the process, in other words, are you a seat-of-the-pants writer, as in get your butt in the chair and see what happens? Or do you prefer a clear, orderly direction (an outline or plot summary) from the very beginning?

When does your rational, conscious mind fail you? When does your intuition fail you?

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9 Comments on “How Far Should You Trust Your Intuition?”

  1. Larry August 13, 2009 at 1:20 pm #

    Cool. I just subscribed. Maybe do the same (provided you like what you see on Storyfix, and I think you will), let’s get a lively writing dialogue going. I really like where you’re coming from.


  2. Larry August 12, 2009 at 6:56 pm #

    Loved this post. I’ve also written about writer’s block on my site and in my new ebook (tips for writers), and our thinking is very aligned. Often what resides at the root of our writers block isn’t what you think it is, nor is the optimal response. Nice work, great site, think I’ll hang out a while.


  3. stevehearsum August 10, 2009 at 7:56 pm #

    No I am not – thank you, will add it to my ‘wish list’.
    Look forward to reading more of your blog postings – I like the territory you are working in.


  4. stevehearsum August 10, 2009 at 4:40 pm #

    The Intuitive – Rational polarity echoes, for me, the Emotional – Rational one that occurs so often in organisations (where I ply my trade as a consultant). Another angle on this can be found in a book by Guy Claxton, ‘Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind’ http://tinyurl.com/kk2pvr

    For me, the trick with intuition is that it is another piece of data. Yes it can be valid, and it still needs to be appraised critically (if time allows it and I am not having to deal with an incoming missile, metaphorical or otherwise).



    • rosannebane August 10, 2009 at 7:21 pm #

      Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ll check it out. Are you familiar with Barry Johnson’s work on Polarity Management? It’s a great tool in OD (organizational development).



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