Decoding intuition

In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Neville Longbottom receives a present:

“A barn owl brought Neville a small package from his grandmother. He opened it excitedly and showed them a glass ball the size of a large marble, which seemed to be full of white smoke.
‘It’s a Remembrall!’ he explained. ‘Gran knows I forget things — this tells you if there’s something you’ve forgotten to do. Look, you hold it tight like this and if it turns red — oh …’ His face fell, because the Remembrall has suddenly glower scarlet, ‘… you’ve forgotten something …’
Neville was trying to remember what he’d forgotten when Draco Malfoy, who was passing the Gryffindor table, snatched the Remembrall out of his hand.”

A device that alerts you to the fact that you’ve forgotten something, but neglects to tell you what—this reminds of the mechanisms of our intuition.

For example, one way to appraise the value of an unexpected opportunity is to make a conscious and deliberate assessment of it. “What do I stand to gain? How much time and energy will it require? What’s the risk? What’s the opportunity cost involved? etc.” Another way to assess it is using intuition, to consult our “gut feelings”. Simply put, how does the opportunity make us feel? Are we drawn to it, or repulsed by it? Do our fingers, toes and stomachs tingle with excitement? Do we feel an influx of energy at the thought of it, or a sapping of energy?

Spotted the problem?

Psychological intuition is betrayed by physiological signals—often in unconscious, uncontrollable processes. Heart rate, breathing, body temperature, muscular tension, nervous system activation. But these are akin to an message encrypted in a code we cannot break. Is my restlessness at night a mark for or against the opportunity? Is my inability to distract my thoughts from something a harbinger of good or ill?

Incorporating intuition into our decision making is a noble ideal, and practically beneficial, but only if we also possess the insight and understanding to interpret its messages. What I suspect is that most of us either don’t have that ability, or have only an amateur’s grasp of our intuition’s code.

Like the Remembrall, our intuition tells us something—the trick is knowing what.