Intuition vs. Reasoning, and why you have your greatest insights while stoned

I couldn't use the shower for a few days either.
I couldn’t use the shower for a few days either.

I once spent two days trying to diagnose an engine problem on my race bike. I went through the service manual several times, troubleshooting step by step. I was ready to throw the motor out the window, but then Dankerson stopped by, listened to the bike run for a minute, and identified the problem. There was a crack in the cylinder head, masked with combustion soot*.

Dankerson on one of his benders
Dank on one of his benders

Dankerson isn’t his real name, but that’s all we ever called him. He attributed his mechanical and racing skills to a constant elevated mental state.

What does being high have to do with anything? Insights come from the suppression of logical reasoning, and apparently recreational drugs inhibit rational thought. I wouldn’t know.

Disabling rational thought frees the mind to employ intuition.

There’s a scientific basis behind this. The hippocampus supports the relational memories required for logical inferences. When the hippocampus function is suppressed, possibly due to the presence of mind-altering substances, then the brain relies on the striatal dopamine system. This system learns not through forming relations, but from independent positive or negative reinforcements. Thus it is more effective for generalizing previously learned knowledge to new contexts [1].

Only one system can drive decisions at any given time. The harder you think, the more you drown out potential insight. What appears to be intuition is really the result of thousands of hours of research, learning, practice, and experience. The striatal system internalizes all this so that someday, when the brain is quiet, it can produce answers.

The older we get, the more implicit learning is accumulated in the brain. I’ve always followed my gut because I’m too lazy to think. A decade ago, it guided me to do a lot of dumb shit. That’s because my intuition was rooted in relatively little knowledge. But now that I have way more experience, everything I do is totally sensible and judicious.

*A real mechanic might wonder why we didn’t just run a compression test. Who needs tests when you have intuition?

References:

1. M.-J. Frank, R.-C. O’Reilly, T. Curran. When memory fails, intuition reigns: midazolam enhances implicit inference in humans. Psychological Science, Volume 8, Issue 17, August 2006, 700-7. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01769.x

See Also:

The Role of Intuition in Trading Decisions

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