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  • Intuitive Thinking

    In my previous discussion of creativity, I noted that there are two primary instrumentalities of creative thinking that design professionals should seek to understand in detail. The first of these is intuition.

    The term is latinate, derived from roots meaning roughly "inward looking-after," also transliterated as "insight." In the dictionary, we see intuition described as "direct perception of the truth," "immediate apprehension," and "pure, untaught, non-inferential knowledge."

    It should come as no surprise that designers tend to be highly intuitive people. The Meyers-Briggs MBTI personality type index contains a description of what it means to display an intuitive personality, or predisposition to a certain mode of thinking, as follows:

    • I remember events by what I read “between the lines” about their meaning.
    • I solve problems by leaping between different ideas and possibilities.
    • I am interested in doing things that are new and different.
    • I like to see the big picture, then to find out the facts.
    • I trust impressions, symbols, and metaphors more than what I actually experienced
    • Sometimes I think so much about new possibilities that I never look at how to make them a reality.

    Indeed. That should sound familiar in greater or lesser degree to most creative professionals. In fact, there's even a specific personality type on this scale referred to by some personality theorists as the "Architect": Introverted-Intuitive-Thinking-Perceptive (INTP).

    Following my method of discussing the instrumentalities of creativity using the combined tools of philosophy and cognitive science, what do we know about this thing we describe as intuition? How does it work? We know that when we see it operating, it is:

    • Automatic - a mode of thinking that occurs primarily below the level of conscious awareness, and is operative at all times.
    • Tacit - the information and knowledge processed and yielded by intuitive thinking is often unexpressed or unarticulated in any explicit  or conscious way.
    • Instantaneous - when intuitive thinking yields information or conclusions, it does so in a way that is perceived as immediate, without precursor or conscious inference.
    • Affective - intuitive judgments are usually experienced through feeling.
    • Attentive - intuitive judgments direct our attention to entities or relationships.

    When you "just know" something without knowing how you know it or giving it much conscious thought, you're displaying intution.

    There are two ways this works.

    First, there is the fully-automatic, primarily unconscious, specialized processing that our brains engage in more or less at all times. This is a form of structural cognition, and it's mostly innate. In other words, it works the way it works because that's how our brains are wired up and the specialized cognitive predispositions that go along with that. For instance, you have a region of your brain, called the fusiform face area or FFA, which is optimized for visual facial recognition. When your visual senses take in information that contains face-like features, your FFA lights up your frontal lobe with an immediate intuitive message: "Hey! There's a face! Pay attention to it!"

    Sad Sink is in ur fusiform gyrus, pwning ur brain.

    The FFA is an example of an embedded and pre-programmed unconscious processing center, of which there are many. It allows us to immediately recognize and pay attention to things in the world which resemble faces, and is a highly deterministic structure. In rare cases where this region of a person's brain is destroyed by illness or injury, the victim is rendered unable to recognize people's faces (as, for instance, the Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat).

    Another functional brain region which operates at this level, but without being specifically pre-programmed for something as specific as facial recognition, is the nucleus amygdala. The amygdala are two almond-sized nodules deep in the brain which are wired directly for input to the sensory-perceptual regions of the cortex, and for output into our sympathetic nervous system via the hypothalamus. That direct connection means that when the amygdala are activated by some stimulus, you get an immediate response through your whole body, typically experienced as powerful emotional reaction, e.g. the Fight-or-Flight Response.

    The amygdala are "programmed" via synaptic plasticity by experiences with high emotional content, and are essential to long-term memory consolidation/reinforcement and behavioral conditioning. For instance, I was attacked by a dog when I was 10 years old and had to have emergency facial reconstruction surgery (fortunately for everyone's FFA, my plastic surgeon was an artist, so the lasting visual impacts are minimal). This was a highly traumatic event, which involved me sitting in an emergency room for several hours with severe wounds to my face before being painstakingly reassembled and spending months healing.

    The high levels of negative emotional potentiation associated with those events formed structural neural pathways within my amygdala so that things such as the smell of hospital disinfectant or certain other experiences associated with those memories cause me immediate and strong emotional responses. These can range from a feeling of "intuitive wrongness and discomfort" on the low end associated with going to the doctor, to acute stress reactions such as circulatory shock when entering an emergency room. This is all triggered unconsciously by immediate reaction to and interpretation of experience through the amygdala.

    The amygdala are not only 'programmed' by negative potentiation experiences, but also by positive ones. It is the high level of emotional potentiality itself, not its valence, that activates the amygdala, which in turn correlates with retention of experience as memory and is internalized as an automatic "importance and reaction measure" of all future experience. Synaptic change in the amygdala is highly persistent, so once these amygdalar potentiations occur, they are mostly permanent unless overlaid with repeated counter-stimuli over a long period of time. We see this in all sorts of behavioral conditioning, intentional (Pavlovian) or otherwise.

    Interestingly, research has found that people who are observed to have a high level of artistic creativity and associative non-linear cognition also tend to have enlarged amygdalar nuclei compared to the general population. Meditation has also been found to modulate neural activity in the amygdala among other regions.

    The second way intuitive thinking works is via parallel distributed processing.

    Because we experience our own consciousness as an intentionally-directed unitary and sequential point of view, we usually assume that our mental processes are inherently linear, singular, and sequential. In other words, we have a tendency to believe that if we aren't actively considering something or paying attention to it, we aren't really giving it much thought.

    This turns out to be very far from the truth.

    In fact, the human brain is a highly-interconnected system of modular information processing areas. Some of these, as I've noted above, are highly specialized and automatic in function. Others, such as those involving the creation, storage, access, and manipulation of memory or the abstraction of experiential information into generalized understanding, are much more generalistic and distributed in nature. The human brain is not so much a computational device with a single, central processor as it is an entire network of parallel processing systems which share input and output channels in a feedback matrix.

    What that means in essence is that we don't have to be consciously aware or intentionally thinking about something in order to be actively and energetically thinking about it, letting our thought processes operate on it in the background even when asleep. When that background cognition reaches a conclusion, connection, solution, or interesting result, it is elevated to attentional awareness and we seem to have intuitively "known" the answer without actively considering it.

    This is a powerful mode of thinking, and it operates in most areas of human thinking. It can be highly efficient, allowing us to make quick judgments based on incomplete information. It allows us to think about many different things at once, even though we may only be actively conscious of one or two of them. It serves as an "early warning system" to generate reflexive responses when action is required faster than the higher brain functions can react. And it allows us to bring the full spectrum of our experience and knowledge to bear at all times. Some models refer to this as 'Recognition-Primed Decision' strategy.

    Relying on intuitive thinking has some serious drawbacks, however. We've already discussed one of them: relying on it too much makes creative professionals dependent on "inspiration" for making progress in a demanding creative environment. It can also be extremely difficult to communicate ideas and conclusions that were reached intuitively to other people who do not share that intuitive understanding.

    More pernicious, because intutive thinking is so heavily dependent on unconscious structural cognition, reliance on intuition means that we are obligated to follow the limitations of those same cognitive structures. In behavioral economics, they refer to the same problem as "bias." By virtue of the way our brains work on a fundamental level, we are biased to think about things in certain ways unless we consciously strive to think outside those biases. This is related to the "black box" problem in engineering as well.

    More importantly, the pre-conscious, or distributed parallel processes, of intuitive cognition are highly dependent on the quality of input. The trained intuition of knowledgable, experienced experts can make extraordinary cognitive leaps and strikingly original breakthroughs. But intuitive thinking also suffers from the GIGO problem. If you've filled your memory, experience, and habits of thought with poor quality inputs, your intuitive judgments will render poor quality outputs.

    'Black Box' plus 'GIGO' means that our intuitive responses to things often contain hidden errors, and arise in such as way as to give those errors limitation power through assumption bias. This is why many creative thinkers have developed exercises and habits of thought to break away from their 'preconceptions,' literally: that which they have thought before they have thought.

    We'll come back to all this later, but for now let's move on to the next primary intrumentality of creativity: Imagination.


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Practical theory and theory of practice in design.

Authored by:

  • gwharton

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