Intuition: Taking a Big Step : Trust a Hunch? Go With Your Gut? Many People, Some Very Successful, Do It. But Few Talked About It. Now, Experts Are Gaining Valuable New Insights Into 'Right Brain' Thinking.

Margaret England, a Century City Hospital physician and UCLA clinical professor, was startled from a recent sound sleep not by noise but by a strange feeling of "absolute dread." She feared that a loved one was ill, although there was no logical basis for her anxiety. She began calling family and friends long-distance, then her sister telephoned with the bad news: Their father had just suffered a heart attack.

A dozen years ago, Jeff Stein had two careers going, as an independent film producer and founder and owner of a sportswear company. For a year, he had been torn between the two, until early one morning he got a sudden, strong "gut feeling" to abandon movie producing. He was standing atop a staircase, he recalled, with pleasant music playing, when suddenly he knew what to do with his life. He quickly finished three film projects and plunged into his chosen career. Today, he heads Camp Beverly Hills, a successful manufacturing and retail sports apparel, fragrances and home furnishings company.

Journalist Laurie Nadel also has experienced powerful inner voices. She once was on her way to a job interview in San Francisco and had forgotten a map and was unfamiliar with the city. But as she neared the downtown, she got a strong feeling about which freeway exit to take. Then she got another strong feeling about which way to turn. For 20 minutes, she let her "internal radar" guide her, weaving her borrowed car in and out of traffic like a native taxi driver. Suddenly, she began to doubt her hunches and slammed on the brakes. She pulled into a gas station to ask directions and learned that her destination was in the next block.

Not so many years ago, intuitive people like Nadel, Stein and England would have kept their hunches under wraps, fearful of ridicule or being labeled weird.

Today they talk openly about their feelings. (Indeed, Nadel has written a book about the subject.) Scientists and scholars are even trying to study the phenomenon, to determine what intuition is and how it works inside the human brain. Intuition often has been often defined as knowing without knowing how you know. It is that flash of knowledge that underlies race-track jackpots, business successes and the "aha!" of many scientific discoveries.

Until recently, intuition played second fiddle to "rational thought," a cooler, more methodical approach to solving problems, one which seems to improve with education and experience.

Now experts say that intuitive and analytical thinking styles aren't really on opposite ends of our mental spectrum, and that intuition, too, can be honed and strengthened.

Intuitive and analytical thought not only can coexist peacefully but can work together more successfully than alone. "Being intuitive does not rule out being analytical," said Robert Chard-Yaron, a San Diego clinical psychologist who has studied intuition in students.

As proof of this new respect, advocates point to the growing acceptance of intuitive thought in the business world. "The Intuitive Manager," a book published in 1986, describes how business leaders use intuition to raise a bid, start a business or develop a new concept. Business magazines are filled with articles, such as "Intuition: What Separates Executives From Managers" and "Stimulating Intuitive Thinking Through Problem Solving." A recent five-day conference in Arizona on intuition attracted professionals from fields as diverse as music, medicine and architecture.

Interest in intuition has become keen in the academic world, proving popular as subjects for dissertation theses and other research studies.

These scholarly works are yielding practical suggestions. Researchers find, for instance, that understanding intuition--and how a partner uses it--can be just the ticket to smooth interpersonal relationships. It also can facilitate classroom learning and other everyday tasks.

Intuition can even be important to those who do not think of themselves as intuitive, who don't ever recall having had a "gut feeling" or "hunch."

In fact, most experts on intuition now argue nearly everyone is intuitive in one way or another. With help, almost anyone can tap into his or her intuitions, and, as with many other skills, improve upon them via simple exercises.

Intuition is a natural mental ability, said Nadel, whose 1990 book is "Sixth Sense: The Whole Brain Book of Intuition, Hunches, Gut Feelings and Their Place in Your Everyday Life" (Prentice Hall Press, $18.95).

"Intuition gives you the whole picture, but not the steps it takes to get there," she explained in an interview. "People who are very logical, who can only see things in steps, have a harder time being intuitive."

Intuition often gives you a "yes" or a "no" answer to a problem, Nadel said. One type of intuition, a premonition, involves a mental warning that something terrible is about to happen, perhaps a feeling that someone is sick or in trouble. But not everything that appears to be intuition is, Nadel pointed out. Sometimes a lucky guess is just that.

There are many theories about the origins of intuition, but Nadel subscribes to the "triune brain" concept.

This model, proposed many years ago, is well known by experts but not by the public. It describes a three-part brain. The reptilian brain creates patterns and habits; the limbic system is the origin of emotions. The neocortex is divided into left and right hemispheres, with intuition originating from the right hemisphere.

"Not everyone supports the triune brain theory, but available evidence suggests that intuition does originate from the right hemisphere," said Paul Sawchenko, an associate professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla.

According to the triune brain theory, there's more going on than meets the eye when a hunch occurs.

Suppose you meet someone for the first time at a business conference and get a feeling you don't trust her. This wary, intuitive thought originates in the right hemisphere. It can signal the limbic system, producing a physical sensation, or gut feeling. Finally, the logical left hemisphere verbalizes the information: "I don't know why, but I think she's a crook."

Another intuition expert sees the phenomenon in much the same way.

"Intuition has three components--information, sensation and emotion," said Gilah Yelin Hirsch, a professor of art at Cal State Dominguez Hills. Now an artist in residence at the Rim Institute, a 27-acre retreat near Payson, Ariz., Hirsch is the coordinator of the recent intuition conference there. The more highly attuned a person is to the environment, Hirsch believes, the more intuitive.

Folklore often refers to women's intuition, and some experts say women may indeed have the edge. Some researchers have found that the structure of nerve fibers linking the right and left hemispheres is proportionately bigger in women. As a result, they speculate, the response time between hemispheres could be faster in women, thus making it easier for women to blend intuition and logic.

Others are unconvinced.

Some experts point out that even if there are anatomical differences, those differences may not necessarily affect thinking styles.

What is clear is that men and women talk differently about intuition. While researching her book, Nadel found men did not even like to mention the word "intuition" except when referring to their wives.

"Men call it hunches or gut feelings," Nadel said. "When I would talk to men about (their own) intuition, they would get very turned off. 'My wife has intuition,' they would say." Once she labeled intuition, men would talk freely and happily about their hunches and gut feelings.

Regardless of the term used to describe intuition, Americans have begun to feel more at ease with it in the past few years, according to experts at the Center for Creative Leadership, a nonprofit research and training institute in Greensboro, N.C.

In the corporate world, for instance, personnel supervisors are increasingly making use of a behavioral preference test called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which measures intuitive skills along with other personality traits. "We see an increased comfort level with being intuitive," said Stan Gryskiewicz, a director at the center.

Philip Goldberg, a Los Angeles novelist and screenwriter, agrees. When he gathered information for "The Intuitive Edge," published in 1983, business executives steered clear--at least publicly--of the whole subject of intuition. During interviews, Goldberg said he would often extract intriguing stories of how a hunch had helped build an empire. But the disclosures were invariably followed by a plea to relate the story without real names.

That would rarely happen today, he said. "Intuition is a subject that people in business circles--often a barometer of mainstream thought--are much less reluctant to talk about now than when I researched the book," he said.

More and more individuals are recognizing that the rewards of boosted intuition can be plentiful, as research in the laboratory has suggested.

Chard-Yaron, the San Diego psychologist, tested the intuition of 75 subjects and separated them into high intuition and low intuition groups. Highly intuitive subjects were much better at word unscrambling exercises and picture identification exercises.

"If you have an ambiguous situation or have to make a decision quickly, highly intuitive people will probably do it better," he concluded.

Intuition can ease classroom learning, according to Becky Patterson-Turner, a professor of English at the University of Alaska, Anchorage.

In a research study, she asked 75 students, ages 18 to 60, to report their episodes of intuition in and out of the classroom. The results run counter to the contention that intuition is most likely to strike during moments of relaxation.

"I found that many students got the intuition when listening to a lecture, not necessarily when driving the car or relaxing," said Patterson-Turner, who found intuitive flashes as common in welding shop as in mathematics classes. "If students learn to recognize and value intuition, they can make great leaps in their thinking," she said.

As useful as intuition is, psychologist Chard-Yaron warns clients that intuition can't be pressed into service at will. "Like a baby," he said, "it comes."

And despite the increased ease with which many people talk about intuition, most Americans still don't make much use of their intuitive abilities.

"About 75% of the population prefers to use hard data when making decisions; 25% prefer to rely on intuition," said Anne Faber, another director at the Center for Creative Leadership, who bases the figures on a sample of 250,000 people. "Grocery shoppers with lists, for instance, are hard-data type of people."

In a business setting, those who rely on intuition are more likely to be presidents than floor sweepers. "The higher we go up the ranks of organizational leadership, the more likely people are to prefer their intuition," said Faber.

That finding has a logical explanation. The executive, dealing with more abstract problems, is often freer to draw on intuition than, say, an assembly line worker instructed simply to tally production.

Not all societies have a history of ignoring the value of intuition on the job. Japan, for instance, is often cited as a society that encourages and fosters intuition in workers, partly by creating a work environment conducive to creativity at all levels of production. Some observers say Japanese reliance on intuition is at the root of its advances in science and technology.

Other researchers find that expertise and intuition are linked. "The more expertise a person has, the more intuitive he or she is," said Michelene Chi, professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. People who have expertise in a subject, she explained, have a larger, more organized data base in their brain. And they can arrive at solutions to problems more quickly than those who have less experience. "A taxi driver familiar with the city appears more intuitive than a rookie," she said. "Intuition is not as magical as you might think."

Intuition plays a supporting role in fields that some people may consider extremely logical or organized. Intuition can help physicians get more information from their patients and thus provide better care, insisted England, the physician who was awakened by a feeling that someone in her own family was sick. "If a physician has the ability to get beyond what's being said by the patient, that can be useful," she said. "But one should never do an invasive procedure based solely on intuition. I use it to explore a certain path. I don't rule out any condition based solely on intuition. But I think it helps me get to what's bothering the patient faster."

Intuition often follows logic. When Jeff Stein used intuition to help him decide between a career in movie producing or retailing, he did so after he had done some logical thinking about the better path. But ultimately, his decision to pour his energies into Camp Beverly Hills was based on "intuition, a visceral gut feeling that said, 'This feels a lot more right.' It's an extra sense that kicks in."

Writer Goldberg doesn't think of intuition as a separate type of thinking. "It's a way to use our minds," he said. "I rely on it a great deal and I think most people do, especially if they are creative. Writing, for instance, has a logical part and an illogical part. And that's true of most creative endeavors. It's a blend of logical and intuitive thought."

Many highly intuitive adults say they remember hearing those inner voices since early childhood, but that their tales of such gut feelings received little or no feedback from their parents and other adults. Nadel remembers vividly a dream she had at age 11. In the dream, Frankie, her blue pet parakeet, had died. It soon came true.

Stein had a similar experience. "When I was about 10 or 12," he said, "I had a dream about Jayne Mansfield. The next morning, she died."

Intuitive children aren't necessarily popular with classmates or teachers, as Nadel remembers from her days in New York City Public Schools. "It marks you as different, weird and strange. And most schools don't reward intuition as a thinking style." Sometimes peer relations don't improve much in adulthood. "Highly intuitive people can be a pain," Chard-Yaron said.

Janet Lundblad of the Times' library helped research this article.

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