Awakening Intuition: Using Your Mind-Body Network for Insight and Healing
By Mona Lisa Schulz, M.D., Ph.D., Christiane Northrup, M.D.
Whether we call them hunches, gut feelings, senses, or dreams, they're all the same thing-intuition, speaking to us, giving us insight and knowledge to help us make sound decisions about any number of actions we take. Intuition occurs when we directly perceive facts outside the range of the usual five senses and independently of any reasoning process. As one scientist defined it, intuition is "the process of reaching accurate conclusions based on inadequate information." This describes precisely my experience in the emergency room. I made a correct decision on the basis of insufficient-really, nonexistent-data. In a purely rational level, I shouldn't have gone running off to look at medical records. No concrete indications of any kind suggested that this was necessary. In fact, going off like that could have gotten me into trouble. My brain was telling me to admit the patient and attend to my other duties, but my body was running around looking for seemingly meaningless HKGs, pursuing nothing but a vague hunch. Yet somehow, in a manner totally unconnected to the facts, and without reasoning it through, I had perceived something that did in fact turn out to be true.
Where did that perception come from? Scientists are still struggling to pinpoint the answer to this question. One theory holds that people with exceptional intuitive skills in given fields are simply experts tapping into vast mental libraries of information, memories that they keep stored in their minds/ According to this explanation, an aviation expert who can diagnose a malfunction in an aircraft that has stymied everyone else is able to do so because a single detail will trigger a recollection of having fixed a plane with a similar problem in the past. This causes him to pull out the appropriate technical manual from his memory stacks, thumb through it mentally, and-bingo!-apply the suggested solution. This is an elegant theory, but it has a lot of Haws. For one, it doesn't explain my experience with the heart attack patient in the emergency room. At that point, I didn't have a library in my mind. I had a couple of file cards, maybe. Nothing in my experience could have signaled to me on any rational or cognitive level what was happening with that patient.
Moreover, it's possible to know something intuitively without ever having subscribed to die appropriate journal, much less having amassed a library on the subject. My friend and colleague Caroline Myss was working at a publishing house when she discovered her abilities as a medical intuitive. She knew nothing about the body and had never shown any interest in ii. Yet as soon as she tapped into her medical intuition, she was able to give people amazingly accurate readings of their health based on no more information than a client's name and
People who routinely rely on intuition in their work or profession don't consciously think about where the information is coming from or why ii helps them do what they do. They just take it and apply it. One of the most intuitive groups of people I ever ran into were the nurses in the hospital intensive care unit. The one time I had duty in the ICU as an intern. I walked up to a nurses' station where it seemed that every conceivable patient alarm and buzzer was going off-and, believe me, there are lots of monitors and alarms in an ICU. Calmly sitting in front of the brightly lit monitor board were three or four nurses, completely ignoring the clamor. One was happily eating pork fried rice, another was busy with chicken wings, and a couple of others were dipping into a box of Dunkin' Donuts. I was astounded. Didn't they know those buzzers could mean patients in crisis? Why weren't they responding? In their place, having a slight case of post-traumatic stress disorder, I would have been dashing around the unit checking on every patient with a ringing buzzer. And of course I would have been exhausted within ten minutes.
Those nurses somehow knew when the buzzing and beeping around them was serious and when it wasn't. Even as I watched, another alarm went off, and a nurse looked up at the board, dropped her chicken wing, and ran down the hall. This time a patient was in crisis. And the nurse had apparently discerned that from not much more than the sound of a beeper and the sight of a flashing light. This phenomenon was repeated again and again. Almost invariably, although they ignored most of the alarms that went off, the nurses responded whenever a real crisis threatened. Again I was amazed. But when I asked them how they knew when they should react and when they could afford not to, they looked at me blankly. Every one of them shrugged and answered: "I don't know. I just know."
What doctor hasn't heard a nurse repeat that phrase time and again? Like my lady in the emergency room, a patient will appear objectively stable or on the mend, but the nurse who has cared for him all night will insist that he's getting worse or is on the verge of crisis. "How do you know?" the doctor will ask, looking for objective data. "Let's look at the vital signs, the lab results, the X-rays," And the nurse can only respond, "I just know." Intuition is a right-hand aid of nurses, but neither they nor anyone else can tell you where it comes from.
In an extensive study of nurses and intuition, nurse and researcher Patricia Benner ascribed the intuitive process of nurses in clinical situations to "skilled pattern recognition." This is another version of "libraries of the mind." Once again, this theory concludes that previously acquired knowledge, an expertise based on memory and prior experience, is the basis and the source of intuition. A nurse detects something in a patient that rings a tiny bell in her mind and reminds her of a previous similar case that leads to her hunch about the current patient's condition.
One of Benner's own nurse cases, however, contradicts this neat theory. It involves a case of pulmonary embolism. As it happens, pulmonary embolism, a blood clot in the lungs that's nearly always fatal if undetected, is one of the hardest things in Western medicine to diagnose. There are virtually no common symptoms and very often no discernible signs that a patient is in danger of a PE. A patient can have absolutely clear lungs and yet suddenly suffer a PE and die. It manifests differently in every individual. In medical school you're essentially taught always to consider the possibility of PE if you have a patient who's just generally "not right" and you can't figure out why. Hut fundamentally it's one of the most fatal medical problems and, tragically, one of the easiest to miss.
The nurse whom Benner observed saw a patient with cerebral edema, or fluid on the brain. His fluid intake had been restricted, and he was resting quietly. But the nurse was concerned. "Somehow I knew he was going to have a rough time," she reported. There it was-the intuitive hunch. "Somehow I knew he was on the highway to a pulmonary embolism." But what a hunch! How did she make the unbelievable leap to that extraordinary conclusion? It was a case of pole-vaulter cognition. This patient didn't have a problem with a clot in his lungs; he had cerebral edema. It wasn't even a case of right church, wrong pew; this nurse didn't even seem to be in the right state! The only possible symptom that she could relate to pulmonary embolism was having overheard the patient's wife say earlier in the day that he was anxious. That night the nurse couldn't stay away from the patient's room, even though he was assigned to someone else's care. Like my feet carrying me to the medical records department, her feet moved her over to his room to investigate. She found him "sort of pale and anxious," and even though he was still conscious, she called the doctors, and sure enough, just as the doctors arrived, the patient began to die. The doctors coded, or resuscitated, him. The pulmonary embolism was caught, and the patient was saved.
In trying to explain her need to check on the patient, the nurse could only say, "I had a suspicion there was something wrong with him, and maybe that's sort of an inside thing."
An inside thing.
An inside suspicion. Meaning intuition.
The word "intuition" derives from the Latin intueri, meaning to look within. Intuition is something we see and bear and feel within, an internal language that facilitates insight and understanding. As such, it's much more immediate than pattern recognition, which is based on external information. In fact, pattern recognition may be an important part of intuition, the part that comes from the right side of the brain. But intuition actually comes from a whole network, a cast of characters present in the brain and the body. Similarly, memories and experiences-those stored in the brain and those encoded in the organs of the body-have a vital function in our intuitive understanding. But the initial sense, that first gut feeling you get when intuition goes to work, is something else. Scientists like Benner and others have tried to rank it as a cognition, a part of the rational mind, the thinking brain. But intuition is a perception, of seeing or hearing or feeling rather than thinking. When I do a reading on a client, I have only his or her name and age to start with. I know nothing more about the person, so I can't, at first, be proceeding on the basis of pattern recognition, recognizing parts of this person's life that are similar to those of other people I've met. Not until I've perceived certain things about the client through intuitive perception can I begin to recognize patterns in the information.
The ancient Greeks believed that intuition was attributable to the gods, that when something as incomprehensible as an intuitive insight came to them, it came directly from the heavens. After formulating his famous theorem, the Greek mathematician Pythagoras immediately went out and sacrificed a thousand oxen to the god Apollo as thanks for having taught him this rule.
Modern-day scientists, especially those of us who study the brain, would generally dismiss this idea. We tend to believe that the source of all human function, behavior, and knowledge is housed in that complex and multifunctional organ. Hut occasionally something happens to challenge this conviction. I have a Ph.D. in neuroanatomy and behavioral neuroscience, and I wrote my dissertation on the structures of the motor system in the brain. I can probably say without exaggeration that I've read nearly everything that's been written about neurological control of the body's movement since just about the beginning of time. Until recently, as far as I was concerned, the brain controlled movement and that was that. No exceptions. If a certain part of the brain was damaged, the movement controlled by that part would cease or be impaired. This was something I knew. I had studied it. learned it, observed it. I was sure of it. Once you do the Ph.D., you're called a scientist, an authority.