Cognition – Intuition – What Is Intuition?

by pre., Friday, February 6th, 2009.

At the Transcendence Institute we often describe a thorough gut-level understanding by using the analogy of catching a ball. In order to learn to catch a ball you don’t go and study the equations which govern the parabolic arc under which the ball will fly, or the science behind the air pressure which drives the winds which may affect it’s course. Learning these things will certainly increase your understanding of how a ball moves, and if you intend to build a robot that catches balls it’s probably your first step, but they will not help you actually catch that ball.

This gut-level understanding is called Intuition. When you intuitively know something you don’t necessarily know how you know it, if you try to explain you’ll likely just be confabulating. A great deal of your understanding is intuitive understanding and even that which is explicit understanding that you can explain exactly is grounded in and based on a more intuitive foundation.

Examples: How to move your arm, how to recognise an apple, how catch a ball, how to talk, how to walk, how to run, skip and jump. If asked to demonstrate a fiendishly difficult task like winking an eye you’ll be able to do it but if asked to describe how to wink an eye you’ll likely be lost at sea. Even if you’re not you’ll probably just start talking about things like signalling your face to contract certain muscle groups in the right pattern, without any real clue how to describe those particular patterns.

Explicit understanding is different. If you explain your explicit understanding to someone, they too will have that understanding. If you give someone your granny’s cookie recipe, they’ll be able to make it as well as you can. However even this recipe, the explicit understanding, is just a tower of intuitive understanding. It relies not only on your knowing how to break an egg into a bowl, but also how to recognise an egg, how to pick it up, what will happen when you smash it against the bowl.

How Intuition Works

Firstly, in a way much more complicated than the gloss we’re about to put over it. The best explicit understanding in the world of these issues still glosses over much, and we only have time here to gloss over most of that gloss.

We have previously mentioned Hebbian Learning, a model of how neurons feeding their outputs into each others inputs can be trained to recognise patterns. To replicate them. To signal how strongly they are recognising a pattern. It’s a strict mathematical model, you don’t need anything other than maths to build a Hebbian network. Making a Hebbian network run is not an intuitive hand-waving affair like teaching a cookie recipe. We have an explicit understanding of the way these abstract neurons interact. We can build machines which work this way and they appear to work in similar ways to at least some of the neural clusters in our brains.

When repeatedly exposed to the same pattern on inputs, this type of network will begin to predict the rest of the pattern. If you wire it into a pitch recognition system and play a tune to it over and over again it’ll fairly quickly start to recognise that tune, even pre-empt it. Furthermore it can learn other tunes, and finish off whichever one you start to play.

We humans who designed these networks have a very good explicit understanding of exactly what each neuron does, and a fairly good understanding of how the whole group of them interact. We know why the network can finish off our pattern. The network itself, however, has no explicit understanding at all. It’s just a mathematical model.

Now consider: The model manages to complete the pattern, so it must ‘know’ in some sense what the rest of that pattern is. Without any understanding of it’s existence, without any understanding of it’s mechanism, without any understanding of what a pattern is or the mathematical rules which is follows, it still ‘knows’ what the rest of that pattern is well enough to complete it.

This, then, is intuition. And there’s millions of examples in your head. You have a neural network which recognises a door. You have one which recognises your front door. You have an uncountable number of these intuitions and you got them all by exposure to enough patterns to be able to classify and predict them.


So how does this roughly-Hebbian pattern recognition system come into your consciousness? How can you tell if you have one and what it’s telling you?

There are two famous optical illusions which give a big clue here. The first is the Necker Cube, an ambiguous rendering of a wire-frame cube which could be facing forwards or backwards, and the second is known as Rubin’s Vase, in which you see either a picture of a vase or else of two faces in profile, so close their noses are almost touching.

When looking at these illusions, how is the fact of “Forwards” or “Face” or else “Backwards” or “Vase” transmitted to your consciousness?

The answer is that they become part of your consciousness. You don’t look at the cube and have some number change on a heads-up display like a Terminator robot. You don’t see lines literally flash around the faces with a “Face Recognised” pop-up window in your visual system. The two intuitive systems in conflict as you stare at those images fight it out, one or the other wins the battle and suppresses the alternative and you’re whole visual scene readjusts to reflect the change.

Remember, as we discussed last week, your consciousness is essentially your intuitive understanding of yourself, your Hebbian Learning systems focused on learning patterns like “How do I feel today” or “Am I happy”?

You are, at all times, making thousands upon thousands of intuitive judgements. Classifying and predicting your environment and your own body’s sensations and even your own state of mind. Right now you’re intuitively recognising many letters every second, and many words based on those letters, and many possible sentences of which you narrow down (hopefully) the one written. You’re recognising and classifying your thoughts about these sentences, fitting the concepts into your current knowledge, and you’re barely conscious of any of it.

Your intuition is already sophisticated beyond our understanding, refined and useful for getting through your life to an extraordinary degree. However you, quite rightly, still question it. Not usually when you’re wondering if that bad scrawl is a letter 0 or a number 6, more often when you’re assessing much more abstract and unquantifiable things: Am I being followed? Is this a dangerous situation? Does he fancy me?

Next week we’ll discuss why you tend to only be conscious of these more abstract things, and later go on to discuss how to listen more closely to your intuition, and assess it’s reasonableness.

Cognition – Intuition – Intuition Heirarchy

by pre., Friday, February 13th, 2009.

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.

Cognition – Intuition – Becoming More Intuitive

by pre., Friday, February 20th, 2009.

Last week we described how simple Hebbian-like learning networks are arranged hierarchically in your brain to recognise and categorise patterns. Points of light in your retina are grouped into shapes and lines and colours, these groups and patterns recognised to show form and recognise objects or letters. These can be further grouped and matched to previous experiences to judge further details, words and individuals and moods etc. We noted that people are in general only really aware, really conscious, of the higher level intuitions, those that let us know (often without really knowing how we know) about trust or fear or motivation. It’s these higher level pattern recognition systems which are usually referred to when someone mentions their intuition.

Improving Your Intuition

Your intuitions have doubtless been honed by millions of years of evolution to learn some things more easily than others: To fear snakes and spiders more quickly than you fear rabbits and kittens, or likewise to learn quickly that large-headed infants are cuter than spiky cacti etc. However your intuitions still need to actually learn and like all learned responses, they can be honed and improved by practice and experience. Particularly if paying full attention and giving your full focus to the process of forming that intuition. Our meditation next week is designed to help you do just this.

Of course it’s difficult to practice using your intuition for anything other than meditating while you are practising a ten minute meditation. Intuitions are formed out in the real world, from acting and living and experiencing life all around you. However, you can bring that world into your meditation through memory (re-visualisation) and through imagination (pre-visualisation). Our meditation will do this, it will encourage you to remember or project a situation in which your intuition is working well and to pay attention to and focus on that visualisation.

By listening to and thinking-along-with the mediation you will also be encouraged to pay attention to your intuition in life, to think about it more often during the normal waking world and thus to spend more time honing and developing it during the time when you’re not listening to our meditation.

How it works

You’ll be asked to imagine or remember some time when your intuition was particularly strong. To focus on all the details that you remember (or project) of that situation, the colours and shapes of the relevent objects in your environment, the feelings and associations produced by those objects, the way your brain responded to those stimuli. As many of the details as you can think of for it’s these details which have fed up through the hierarchy of intuitions into the most conscious and pertinent higher levels.

You’ll do this for most of the meditation. Trying to get your mind into the same state it was in when you had that intuition, then you’ll be asked to examine why you felt that way, to look inwards at your own mind, apply your intuitive learning systems to your own intuition.

By doing this you’ll be able to contemplate the state of your mind at the time your intuition was at it’s best. This will help you to learn (again, in a catch-a-ball way rather than a book-learning way) exactly how your intuition works and that in turn will enable your mind to automatically adjust to improve it’s accuracy, relevance and self-understanding.


Next week, before finally presenting this month’s Guided Meditation, we’ll discuss the pitfalls of intuitive thinking. The mistakes it can make, the false-positive patterns it can recognise and ways that you can de-program yourself to remove these false-positive pattern recognitions.

Cognition – Intuition – Stereotypes

by pre., Friday, February 27th, 2009.

You have learned how repetition, practice and exposure to a pattern can build recognition systems in your brain, and that we call these ‘intuitions’. Of course, sometimes you can find yourself exposed to false correlation. For example if you happen to come across a really obnoxious and horrible guy who happens to have a certain set of facial expressions, you may come to associate those facial expressions with obnoxiousness, just through seeing those expressions and that guy together lots of times. Then some other guy with similar facial expressions but who’s perfectly nice comes into your life and every time you’re around him you get a creepy feeling that he’s horrible.

It doesn’t always even take many repetitions, especially if a strong emotional response is involved. If you’re bitten by the first dog you ever come across you may well find a fear of dogs develops almost instantly in just one exposure since the intense fear and pain of the bite can cause the Long Term Potentiation to set quick and hard. Just a single exposure builds this pattern of association and you can find yourself saddled with a phobia, for the rest of time without treatment.

These problems are quite enough you would think, but on top of this the human species is a deeply verbal species. Just by the power of words we can evoke experiences in each other’s head. You don’t even need to actually be exposed to an object in reality at all to find you’ve built intuitions about that object just from the words and attitudes of those around you. Just from constant association between an object and negative emotional responses when talking about an object, person or group you can find you’ve built up prejudices against or for those objects without even directly experiencing them. If you see enough plane crashes on TV then your first experience on a plane may fill you with debilitating fear. Often the strongest racists are people who’ve never met a person in the ethnic group they revile, let alone known one well. They pick up the associations through the language and behaviour of those around them, most of whom may not have met the relevent people either.

All these things, these systems for building intuitions, build up stereotypes in your mind.

The word “Stereotype” will have no doubt fired negative associations in your mind already. The word is most often used in connection with false relationships, with over-broad generalisations, with racism and classism, snobbery and religious intolerance. The truth is though that all thinking is stereotypical thinking. When you think “All mice are mammals”, or “All guitars are string instruments” or “All books have pages” you’re using the facts you know about an object’s membership of a group to conclude facts about the object itself. Those three examples were of true stereotypes, which are a useful and logical way to think about the world. At least until you get your first eBook, with no pages at all.

However, as your stereotype of the word stereotype will have already implied to you, often your intuitive stereotypes are not true. It’s not true that all people with certain features are horrible. It’s not true that all dogs should inspire fear. Just about any racist statement you care to make simply doesn’t hold water.

Stereotypical thinking is good and useful when the stereotypes are true but false and very misleading when they are false.

Recognising False Intuitions

There is no easy way to know when your intuition about something is right or wrong. The very brain that you are using to judge the intuition is, by definition, a brain which will agree that the intuition is true. However, you will sometimes notice that two contradictory intuitions have formed in your head. Or you may be able to use logic and reason to conclude that some belief that you have formed is untrue or unproductive. Or your trusted friends may convince you that you are mistaken.

Often that very acknowledgement of that contradiction, logical impossibility or convincing argument will be enough to erase the false intuition from your mind. However some false intuitions may be more stubborn. Particularly phobias or strong dislikes can be difficult to shift simply by acknowledging them. You could know that spiders are mostly completely harmless, but this alone may not stop the fear from forming when you find one in the bath with you.

Removing Bad Stereotypes

The meditation we are about to introduce is designed to help you improve your intuitions, but often the most useful improvement you can make is to remove an old irrelevant or untrue intuition rather than building or improving a new one. Often the best way to increase your confidence of your intuitions is to reduce their rate of error.

The following meditation can be used to try and remove false intuitions as well as to improve good ones. It will ask you to remember, or imagine, some time when you felt an intuition strongly which turned out to be correct. If you’re attempting to remove an untrue intuition, instead think of exceptions to your rule. If you’re afraid of spiders, remember (or imagine) times when you dealt with spiders harmlessly. If you’re afraid of the dark or distrust foreigners, try to think of nice things which happen in the dark, or trusted yet foreign friends. If you tend to suffer from unthinking deference to authority, recall times you trusted that authority figure, be they a doctor or a politician or a policeman, and they turned out to be lying to you, seeking their own advantage or just plain dumb and wrong.

As you examine your state of mind when you were in that situation, turn DOWN the volume of your intuition rather than turning it UP.

This Month’s Meditation

Our meditation this month will help you to improve your intuitions, to build pattern recognition systems which will help you operate in the world more effectively, and to increase your confidence and trust of those intuitions.

You’ll be asked to think of, or imagine, some time when you were particularly astute, when you noticed some fact before all your friends or acquaintances. When you were perhaps doubtful of your own experience but turned out to be wrong. You’ll recall that event in as much detail as possible, really powerfully re-activating the neurons involved in that experience and so increasing the Long Term Potentiation between them. Strengthening the network, improving both the pattern recognition system itself and your confidence in it.

In the second half you’ll continue to visualise and relive that experience, but vary some irrelevant details. Details which make no part of the pattern, details which are just distracting and unhelpful. Thereby you’ll be ensuring that only the relevent parts of that intuition are built up rather than, say, associating the colour of the carpet with your intuition rather than the salient details.

Guided Meditation File 13 – Cognition Intuition
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