We’ve all experienced it: meeting someone for the first time and knowing instantly that you’ll become close friends with that person. Or walking out of the doctor’s office with a clean bill of health, but still having a nagging feeling that something is wrong. These kinds of snap judgments, or intuitive thoughts, are made at a subconscious level, without the benefit of rational, step-by-step analysis. And many of our intuitions prove to be accurate.
While this may sound mystical, researchers believe that intuitive thinking is no more than your brain drawing upon past experiences and external clues to size things up and make a quick decision. An example of this is a Harvard research study demonstrating that students who were shown a 10-second video clip of a prospective professor teaching a class evaluated that teacher’s performance similarly prior to taking the class as they did at semester’s end.
These “thin slices” of behavior we see within the first few seconds of meeting someone can reveal much about that person, leading us to draw instant conclusions. The phenomena of intuitive decision-making is increasingly being studied for its potential use in certain careers where quick analysis of suspicious behavior is needed, such as within the United States Customs Service and the Department of Homeland Security.
Intuitive decision making can be a powerful tool when it comes to making health choices, too, especially when combined with conscious and deliberate actions. That is, if you’re willing to develop and trust that skill, says Michael Finkelstein, MD, who practices integrative and holistic medicine in Bedford, New York and is the founder and director of SunRaven, a center for holistic and skillful living in New York. “Everyone is intuitive to a certain extent,” he explains. “But our culture doesn’t encourage us to trust these instincts. Instead we’re taught that we can’t make decisions on our own. We seek ‘expert’ opinions on everything, especially for health issues.”
You can learn to trust your own instinctive judgment in many health decisions, though, adds Finkelstein, whose own journey as self professed “doctor of common sense” began with a trip to a mental health specialist with his troubled young son. There, he learned that his child had a simple problem that could have been treated without professional help: he needed more attention from his overly busy father.
How to start working on your intuitive skills to improve your physical and mental health? Here are some tips from the experts:
Spend some time each day alone in a quiet place, without external stimuli such as phones or computers, advises Melissa Patterson, ND, who practices as a naturopathic physician in Sebastopol, California and has completed a Master of Intuition Medicine (MIM) program through the Academy of Intuition Medicine in California. “When you spend time without doing anything except being still, perhaps meditating or praying, it’s easier to get in touch with yourself.”
Listen to your gut feelings, says Judith Orloff, MD, author of “Second Sight: An Intuitive Psychiatrist Tells Her Extraordinary Story and Shows you How to Tap Your Own Inner Wisdom.” “You have a truth meter inside of you. It will tell you what’s best for you, whether about people, jobs or health decisions. For example, you know which people give you energy, and which are emotional energy vampires.”
Pay attention to your body, too, adds Orloff. “Your body is wired for survival. You have little red flags to warn you of danger, such as the hair standing up on the back of your neck or a sudden queasy stomach. Be aware of these red flags.”
Focus on the basics, says Finkelstein. “When it comes down to it, most health problems are a result of lifestyle choices. You instinctively know that you need good food, rest and relaxation, exercise and social relationships.”
Be honest with yourself, advises Patterson. “So many people want to get better with a magic pill. Illness is often a wake up call to pay attention to what’s happening in your body, and what you really need to do.” For example, adds Patterson, “If you have diabetes, you may have a problem with nutritional knowledge, or a dysfunctional relationship with food. Other factors such as an increased stress level or an emotional trauma may be part of the picture, too. Start at a place that works for you in seeking a bigger perspective.”
Tap into your dreams to find answers, says Orloff, who believes that dreams can inform, guide – and even heal. While many dreams point to areas of the psyche that need attention, some give answers to particular questions. “Ask yourself a question before going to sleep at night, and you may get a specific answer through dreaming,” Orloff claims. She suggests keeping a notebook by your bed and upon waking, staying quiet for several minutes, trying to recall the dream, then writing it down so that you can examine what it means in your life.
Take a break one day a week. “Observe a ‘sabbath’ of sorts one day a week, where you are able to detach yourself from technology and slow down. Try to find the rhythm and flow in your life, develop a spiritual connection to nature,” advises Finkelstein.
While it may be difficult at first to act on thoughts that operate outside of your conscious awareness, joining the subconscious/automatic to the conscious/deliberate – or “dual processing” – can often lead to a better outcome. One of the greatest minds in all of history, Albert Einstein, recognized the truth in this. He is quoted as saying, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
By Linda Hepler, BSN, RN