Can’t Make a Decision? Don’t Dismiss Intuition (it’s not all woo-woo)

Sep 18, 2018 | Change

Why can’t I figure out what to do?

Sometimes, even with all our brain power, our pro-and-con lists, we might sometimes feel like we’re still missing some aspect of a problem or decision. We might still get a nagging feeling about it that we can’t articulate.

In today’s world, we place major emphasis on our intellectualizing, analyzing and problem-solving capacities. And our head is key to performing these thinking tasks.

When I was a lawyer, I certainly used these cognitive capacities a lot, but I wasn’t in touch with other messages from my heart or intuition – frankly, I wasn’t sure I believe it really existed.

I also have clients who analyze something every which way but still can’t see a solution.

Sometimes, especially with people who are highly intelligent, the more a person uses their cognitive capacities to find an answer, the more confused they end up feeling. And when I ask them to slow down the thinking and see what else is there, they come up blank.

It might not show up immediately, but often the missing piece is what we might call the gut feeling or intuition.

And for those of you who don’t like “woo-woo” (as a client recently said to me), have no fear. The missing piece also comes from the head or brain. It’s just a different part of the brain than we’re used to using.

Intuition is not all woo-woo

Intuition is not some wave of insight that comes out of the sky. It’s connected to our brain processing.

The brain, which works very hard for us every day, is always trying to anticipate what’s coming next based on current external and internal stimuli and past memories, and regulating the body’s resources accordingly. It’s constantly processing all kinds of information, and lot of this processing happens outside of our cognitive awareness.

Although in today’s world we place greater emphasis on the slower system of cognition, the other system has helped us to survive as a species. It helped prepare us to escape a threat to our physical safety by directing physical responses such as a faster heart rate and shallow breathing even before we realize that we’ve seen the threat.

Our intuition (aka gut feeling, heart sense – whatever you want to call it) comes from messages that arise from a brain system that processes stimuli quickly and outside of our conscious awareness. This system involves a more primitive part of the brain called the limbic area where we process external and internal stimuli quickly and send it to the right hemisphere for further processing.

Our thinking or cognitive brain involves a slower-processing system that uses areas of the brain that developed later in our evolution, the cortex or outer layer, and is mostly found in the left hemisphere.

Intuition happens when the slower-processing system connects with the fast-processing system in order to become aware of the messages.

Intuition Knows Before We “Know”

Studies have shown that this faster, unconscious system in the brain (aka intuition) can know the right answer before the thinking brain knows.

One such study asked people to play a card game and try to win the most money. They could choose between two stacks of cards, one of which was set up to provide big wins and big losses, and the other of which was set up to provide for small wins but very few losses.

After about 50 card choices, people had a sense of which deck was less risky but they couldn’t yet explain why. However, after only 10 card choices, people’s palms began to sweat slightly and they began to favor the safer deck without realizing it. The intuition system knew before the cognitive system did.

It’s important to note that the intuition system can involve cognitive biases, whether based on culture or past experience. Even when we don’t realize it, we could have a predisposition for/against a person or issue, so it’s important to explore possible bias when paying attention to the system’s messages.

As Dr. Daniel Siegel explains, we need to understand that both systems are important and to pay attention to both, to integrate them.

Often if we stay only in the analytical thinking brain, we go round and round or back and forth but still can’t see clearly to make a decision. Ideally, intuitive and analytic thinking both occur to best inform our most important or difficult decisions.

How to make better use of the brain’s intuition

In order to recognize what the faster intuition system knows, we need to allow the slower, analytical system from the left brain to connect to the system in the right brain. In other words, we need to integrate the two systems – create the neural connections – so we can become aware of the messages and analyze them.

Connecting the systems begins by paying attention to internal feelings and sensations in the present moment. This means slowing down and letting the swirling thoughts subside.

We build the connection by paying attention to physical sensations in the body, whether it’s noticing the heart beat, the breath, sweaty palms, tightness, tingling or other sensation. Slowing and deepening the breath can help with this process.

(By the way, if you remain a complete skeptic and constantly judge the process of paying attention in the moment, you’ll have a difficult time noticing anything.)

Once you’re fully aware of the body and the present moment, then ask yourself the question you have. Be patient and open to any messages that arise. If you immediately dismiss or judge whatever comes up, you’ll have difficult integrating the systems.

Creating and strengthening new neural connections in the brain can take time, but the payoff is great.

If you’d like some guidance in building the connection, shoot me an email to set up a free call.

Photo by Steve Johnson at


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Jen Riggs Blog

Meet the Author

Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

Free Audio Download

free download

6 minutes to greater presence

A guided practice for calming and clearing the mind, body and nervous system. Sign up to receive the monthly newsletter & free audio file.