The Power of Eureka

DEK: That little voice that nudges you when you’re stuck between two choices? It’s real, says Helen Fisher, PhD. 

You’re introduced to a new colleague, and instantly sense that the two of you will become friends. Or you’re faced with a difficult decision, and suddenly you feel the right answer in your gut. Intuition can seem to arise from some mysterious inner source, but it’s actually a form of unconscious reasoning—one that’s rooted in the way our brains collect and store information. 

As you accumulate knowledge—whether it’s about what books your spouse likes, how to play chess, or which flavors taste best together in a recipe—you begin to recognize patterns. Your brain unconsciously organizes these patterns into blocks of information—a process for which the late psychologist Herbert Simon, PhD, coined the term “chunking.”(Simon 1974; Simon 1987) Over time, your brain chunks and links more and more patterns, then stores these clusters of knowledge in your long-term memory. When you see a tiny detail of a familiar design, you instantly recognize the larger composition: what we regard as a flash of intuition. 

This elaborate brain circuitry likely evolved so our forebears could size up a person or a situation quickly (Fisher 1999). Our female ancestors, in particular, needed this skill: They had to tune into their infants to enable them to survive. And this helps explain why women have an edge when it comes to reading people. Slight tension in a voice, a faint tremble of a lower lip, a shift of body weight—women quickly pick up information from another person’s posture, gestures, face, and tone of voice, and mentally match that information to what they’ve learned in the past about human emotion and behavior.(see Fisher 1999) 

So tune into your gut feelings instead of brushing them aside. Your intuition may not always steer you right, but it can be a useful first step in decision-making. 

Simon, H.A. (1974) “How big is a chunk?”  Science 183:482-488.

Simon, H.A.(1987) Making management decisions: the role of intuition and emotion.” Academy of Management Executive (Feb issue): 57-63.

Fisher, HE (1999) The First Sex: the natural talents of women and how they are changing the world. New York: Random House.