Cognition – Intuition – Intuition Heirarchy

Friday, February 13th, 2009 at 8:00 am.
by pre.

You have seen that your brain’s pattern-matching skill is both awesome and mostly unconscious. We will now delve a little deeper about exactly how many simple pattern matching systems can be combined and used to form groupings which themselves can be examined with your intuition system. In short, how a hierarchical chain of pattern matching units increases both the complexity of patterns which can be matched, and the reliability of the systems doing the matching.

Example Hierarchy

We will examine a fairly simple and easy to understand example: That of reading this article. As your eyes scan over the words in this paragraph, they succade from one group of letters to the next, pausing and glimpsing briefly each group of four or five letters. Your eyes do this many times each second and yet you’re barely aware of them moving at all. Each succade pauses long enough for your retinal rods and cones to respond to the pattern of light which makes up those few letters in the detailed area of your retina, roughly a syllable’s worth. Some patches of your retina (the ones focused on the white page) get more light than others (the ones focused on the black characters), and thus they are more electrochemically excited than others.

A pattern matching system in your visual processing centres examine these differing excitation levels and looks for patterns in the differences between them. Neurologists have studied this first level well and understand it in great depth, practically drawing circuit diagrams of the neurons of many animals. Some clusters of neurons look for lines, others for patches of colour, others for boundaries. This, we could say, is the first intuition processed: Recognising the patterns in the light hitting your retina and turning it into information which describes and reflects how lines and shapes are orientated compared to your eye.

More deeply into your mind, more clusters of neurons examine those lines and shapes. After much hard work learning to do so, many repitions of a teacher pointing at a letter and verbalising a sound, your brain begins to notice patterns in those lines and shapes. They begin to recognise individual letters. You learn to recognise the “r” in “recognise”, and see it as different from the “d” in different.

As you learn to read, after many many hours of practice, your brain begins to learn to recognise the patterns in the order of those letters. It develops in intuition that some permeations represent words like “represent”, and thus you eventually learn to read whole words.

By the time you started reading you will have already spent a few years teaching other parts of your brain how to intuitively recognise the way words fit into patterns based on a grammar. Human beings are much more naturally talented at this than reading. In leaning language you’ll have already started to recognise words and associate each word with real life things, actions or superlatives.

Now none of these pattern recognition systems, these intuitions, are 100% infallible. Indeed, each level is fairly error prone. The visual field is a noisy place, changes in lighting and the angle of your head as you read are constantly altering the pattern of light falling on your retina. The lines and shapes built in your mind from them are often mistaken and wrong. You suffer from visual illusions of all kinds. The actual words written are prone to human error; spelling mistakes ill formed and irregular grammar.

However, the hierarchy itself can perform error correction functions, the data being received and transmitted at each stage can help the stages above and below because these too are part of the pattern that you learn to intuitively recognise.

For example, if you look at the first letter in the word “Ant” written in scrawly handwriting or partially obscured by a light reflection, your visual system may find it hard to tell the down-sloped line on the right hand side of that letter. Perhaps it mistakenly signals that it can see an up-sloping line. Instead of /-\, the letter A, it signals /-/.

Now your letter recognition system will fail to recognise anything. This is not a letter. But like Hebbian networks, your intuitive learning system gives more information than this. It settles into the closest learned pattern. It doesn’t say, “That’s not a letter” it says “That’s a bit like the letter A”. Now that your line-recognition system knows it’s supposed to be a letter A, it can correct itself and turn that up-slope signal into the down-slope signal it now expects. In other words, the letter recognition system is sending signals back down a layer to the line recognition system, correcting it’s mistaken interpretation.

Likewise, if the line recognition systems saw two vertical lines rather than sloping lines, |-| instead of /-\ then the letter recognition systems would think they saw a letter H. However the word recognition network would think this unlikely. There is no word “Hnt”. Though this does resemble “Ant”. That information can be sent back down the hierarchy to suggest a letter A. In turn that suggests the upward then downward sloping lines. Like seeing the Rubins Cube flip over, your visual system will interpret all the information is has available, not just the lines but the fact these lines are expected to fit a shape which fits a letter which fits a word which fits a sentence. All these things can change the result, can change what you actually see. This is why optical illusions are so powerful. They actually influence the signals that your low-level neurons are sending. They actually change what you see!

The inputs to each pattern recognition unit in your brain include the outputs of layers below and above. Your brain is not only looking for a pattern, but a pattern in a given context.

You can see how this reduces error and pulls the signal from the noise.

Of course this hierarchy of intuition doesn’t just apply to reading the word “Ant”. It applies to all your intuitions from knowing how to catch our proverbial ball through to playing a guitar or feeling slightly nervous around dogs.


As this example makes clear, most intuition is entirely subconscious. As you’re reading these words you aren’t usually aware of your eyes succading across the page, of the lines and shapes that form the letters, of the letters which make up each word, even of the words themselves. You’re usually just aware of the meaning of the sentences.

In general, we’re more aware of higher level intuitions than lower level ones.

As a result, when people talk about their intuition, about being intuitive, they are usually not talking about how well they recognise letters or fit words into a gramitical structure in order to understand them. They are usually talking about high level intuitions, near the top of this intuitive hierarchy. Things like trust and nervousness and seeing the deep implications of social interactions. These higher level intuitions are just as difficult to describe and explain as lower level ones. An ‘intuitive’ person can usually no more explain how they know that a given person is sleeping around, or that some other person is lying, or that this particular alley way is dangerous in the dark and should be avoided, than they can explain how they recognise the angle between two straight lines. Generally they’ll say “I just know” or confabulate some excuse, or simply ask you to call it an intuition. They can’t usually tell you which lower-level pattern matchings were generating this partial pattern which, when completed, and given the other surrounding patterns in the hierarchy, imply distrust or infidelity or violence.

There’s no doubt that evolution has primed your intuitions to be more likely to learn some things than others. To more easily learn to fear snakes than fluffy bunnies. To more easily learn to trust smiles than frowns. Your intuitions certainly also work slightly differently for pattern matching sounds than landscapes, physics is learned differently than sociology. It’s important to notice though that all these intuitions, especially your higher level more conscious intuition, is a learned response. Like all learned responses, it can be trained, practised, altered and improved or reduced as required.

Next week we’ll look into ways to improve your awareness of these higher level intuitions, how to pay better attention to the patterns which your need to use to train your brain on in order to improve your intuition.