Brilliance comes in many different flavors. As part of his Multiple Intelligence Theory, Harvard University developmental psychologist Howard Gardner has laid out nine different kinds of intelligence so far — linguistic, logical-mathematical, kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal and so on. What I find particularly fascinating, though, is how often we tend to ignore a particular type of intelligence — instinct — with which we are all inherently endowed.
Instinct is, in my view, the culmination of millions of years of practical observation and experience, all coded into our DNA and available for retrieval on a split-second basis. It’s the wisdom gathered and refined over the course of millennia, by countless human and prehuman forebears, and tucked away into the deepest recesses of our synaptic selves — the autonomic nervous system and the emotional brain.
This is the intelligence of raw survival, fused with the more miraculous and mysterious drives of the human soul. It’s the accumulated skill set our ancestors relied on to get their nourishment, to find and keep their mates, to interact with lush and dangerous environments, to navigate challenging terrains. It is the basis from which all of our present-day intelligence and know-how evolved.
The modern intellectual brain is a comparatively recent development — most scientists place its inception at around 10,000 years ago. In evolutionary terms, that means we’ve only started kicking the tires of our newer information-processing equipment.
Although our human intellectual brain is extraordinarily capable of complex feats and refined calculations, it is, in many ways, still substantially deficient to our older animal brain. Nevertheless, we’ve been socialized and educated to rely on our present-day learned behavior almost exclusively, and to relegate our rich stores of instinctive wisdom to the dusty back shelves of our awareness.
We can still access this long-stored information, though, if we choose to.
I remember marveling at how my infant son used to reach out to grasp his mother’s hair, not just with his fingers, but also with his toes. Prior to learning “the right way” to do it, he had equal facility and curiosity with all his limbs and digits. As he grew, of course, he gleaned from observation that modern day humans use their hands for such things and stopped exploring objects with his feet.
But observing his early, instinctive tendencies was a reminder to me that we all possess the capacity to use our bodies in much more complex and flexible ways than we currently do, and that much of our bodily wisdom predates our modern-day brain. We’ve just forgotten how to access, develop and apply it.
In my own life, I’ve learned (often the hard way) to give my instincts their due. Because usually when I’ve ignored my gut-level intuitions in favor of my logical smarts, the results have been punishing. I’m not saying that relying on instinct exclusively is always a good idea, just that it makes no sense to silence such a rich source of wisdom, particularly when the stakes are high.
Over the years, this is the three-pronged approach that has worked best for me:
1. If it’s an important decision and I’ve got the luxury of some time to weigh my options, I explore the facts and factors until I get two green lights: one from my rational brain and one from my instinctive self.
2. If the decision is not terribly important, or if the downside is not great either way, I am open to following whichever source of wisdom seems strongest at the time.
3. When the decision is a big one and I don’t have a lot of time to think it through, or if a logical solution simply isn’t clear, nine times out of 10, I just go with my gut.
There’s no question that following our instincts can be a little scary. We live in a culture that values reason, so we tend to second-guess our intuitive wisdom. Or — out of fear of ridicule, mistrust or judgment by others — we simply don’t disclose how often we leverage it. That has resulted in instinct being wrongly relegated to a second-class source of knowledge.
Like any other skill or knowledge base, though, the capacity and sensitivity of our instincts depend in large part on how often we use them. So regular, repetitive exercise of our instinctive faculties is key. (For more on when and how to put them to good use, see “5 Gut Instincts You Shouldn’t Ignore.”)
If your own instincts aren’t getting the exercise they deserve, start dusting them off. Next time you need to make a decision — small or large — pause for a moment, tune in to your instinctive resources and just be open to their influence.
The more you use those ancient stores of knowledge, the more often you’ll feel them nudging you in the right direction.