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Susan Smalley, Ph.D. Headshot

Why Intuition Is More Than Just Psychobabble

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I'm embarrassed to say I read Louise Hay's "You can heal your life" at times when I have a stiff neck, lower back pain, or sinus flare-up. Her book is full of body to emotion relationships with positive affirmations offered as a means to counter what she considers the underlying cause of many illness, negative thoughts and feelings. The feeling of embarrassment stems from my training in science and my respect for the rigors of science, for the power of an accumulation of empiric data to back up hypotheses in life. As far as I know there is no scientific data that can be used to support Hay's connections. Perhaps Louise Hay is right, perhaps she is wrong. Using science as a means of deciding cannot help at this point in time because there is no scientific research that has yet tested the specific mind-body relationships she puts forth.

There is a growing body of data supporting strong mind-body connections and studies over the next decade or two will likely yield great leaps in our understanding of them. But this post is not about Louis Hay, it is about the value of intuition vs. reason in gaining knowledge about the world. Louis Hay is an interesting example because her book is largely based on her first-person experiences with clients from her church and her intuition of mind-body connections. Despite the lack of scientific studies behind it, she has a massive number of followers around the world.

Intuition is, by definition, a non-rational means of knowing. In the world of science - a system based in reason - intuition is precluded as a viable means of knowing.

There is however a growing interest among scientists to better understand intuition, from the biological correlates of it to times when intuitive judgments may be valuable. In decision-making, problems solved by intuition, called 'insight', have revealed that specific neuroanatomical correlates (e.g. right temporal lobe) are involved. Other studies have shown times when intuitive decision-making is advantageous over reason (perhaps in cases with numerous decision points). And, scientists have long seen the value of intuition in moving their own field forward, how bursts of insight, so-called 'Aha!' moments often yield unforeseen and useful discoveries that at times lead to paradigm shifts. Jonas Salk, a scientist who valued intuition, once wrote "the intuitive mind tells the thinking mind where to look'.

For many years I closed my mind to intuition, thinking only science held the key to understanding. I now see intuition as crucial to humanity and attempt to keep an open mind to everything. In Western society, we have leaned so far toward reason that we have forgotten the value of intuition.

My interest in Hays is to illustrate the ease with which we shut the doors of intuition in the absence of science. I am pretty sure most of my scientist colleagues would discount her mind-body connections as speculative at best and 'new age psychobabble' at worst. Perhaps it is wise to remind ourselves to stay 'open' to ideas until they have been rigorously examined, to not shut doors of intuition until science has also played its part, to withhold judgment until exploration is complete.

I'm often struck by quick I am to judge an idea, while catching myself if I judge a person or place by its cover. But an idea seems to slip beneath by radar and I find I have closed a door too quickly time and time again. Reminding myself to pause and say nothing is the most valuable way to let ideas flow.

Perhaps if we were each to pause and consider how best to use both intuition and reason, and observe our relationships with ideas generated by the two, humanity would benefit in the process.

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