Intuition is defined as knowing something without knowing how you know. There are two ordinary types of intuition; there’s also a third type that is more mysterious. The ordinary types involve forgotten expertise and unconscious perception. The former refers to cases where expertise becomes so automatic that the details are no longer consciously available. Examples include nurses who can just glance at a patient and accurately assess their current status or firefighters who can sense that a burning roof is about to collapse. These folks might not be able to explain exactly why they know what they know, but they’re correct nevertheless. The second type of ordinary intuition is due to peripheral or subliminal perception. Much of our perception occurs below the level of conscious awareness, but it can still significantly influence our decisions and behavior.
Here’s where it gets interesting. The third type of intuition manifests as gut feelings, hunches, and in extreme cases, psychic inclinations. It’s that subtle nudge that makes you slow down your car as you approach an intersection, even though you have a green light. As you continue to decelerate, you may become puzzled because traffic is light and there are no signs of other cars at the intersection. Suddenly, a speeding truck appears from behind a building that was blocking your view of the cross street. The truck runs a red light and blasts through the intersection at 50 miles per hour. If you hadn’t paid attention to your uneasy sense that something wasn’t quite right, you might have been hit broadside and killed.
There are thousands of such stories, many told by ordinary citizens who insist that their intuition helped them avoid serious accidents. Many more are reported by police officers, firefighters, and soldiers who credit intuition for saving their lives and the lives of their comrades. For example, I received the following email from a soldier: “I’m probably sure you’re going to think I’m insane, but I’ll tell you anyway. I am serving in the British Armed Forces. I have a way of foreseeing certain outcomes and therefore avoiding them. On my last tour of Afghanistan, I had to choose a route no less than 29 times, and each time I chose the safe route, whereas the patrol that took the other route came under contact from either small arms fire or IED (improved explosive device). You’re probably going to say coincidence or lucky, as people usually do, but I know it’s more than that.”
If not coincidence or luck, then what else could account for exceptional cases of intuitive hunches? Perhaps you hit the brake in your car because you unconsciously heard a truck in the distance. Or perhaps a soldier avoids dangerous routes because she overheard rumors while she was sleeping. Or maybe, we have a “sixth sense” that extends beyond the reach of the ordinary senses. The latter possibility is intriguing, but is there a way to test that form of intuition? Yes, there is. We bring this type of intuition into the laboratory to study it under rigorously controlled conditions, where we can objectively measure chance versus not-chance outcomes.
Scientists have been studying sixth sense intuition in laboratory experiments for decades. One successful class of such experiments capitalizes on the most common source of intuitive insights: dreams. Starting in the 1960s, a study design developed in which a participant’s eye movements are monitored by an electrooculograph (EOG, a device that measures electrical changes in the eye muscles) while they slept in a sound-proofed sleep lab. Periodically during the evening, the EOG will indicate that the sleeper’s eyes are rapidly moving, and this “rapid eye movement” or REM state is a sign that they are actively dreaming. When this happens, a “sender” in a distant room is handed a “target” photograph that was randomly selected from a large pool of possible photos, and they are asked to mentally “send” information about the photo into the sleeper’s dream. When the REM state ends, the sleeper is awakened, they are asked to report their dream (dreams are recalled about 75% of the time under these conditions), and then they can resume sleeping. This REM-sending-reporting cycle is repeated several times during the evening, and each time the sender mentally sends information about the same photo.
The next day, independent judges unaware of the target photo, are given a transcript of the sleeper’s reported dreams along with four photos, the target, and three decoys. These four photos are pre-arranged to be as different from each other as possible to make it easier for the judges to decide which photo best matches the sleeper’s dream. If the judges’ selected photo is correct, the dream session is recorded as a hit; otherwise, it is declared a miss.
Analysis of such studies, published in 2017 by University of Adelaide psychologist Lance Storm and his colleagues, found 40 published experiments reported by 51 different experimenters from 1966 through 2016. These studies included a total of 1,968 individual dream-intuition sessions. Some of the sessions involved a distant person mentally sending a randomly selected target photo while the sleepers were dreaming, others used a similar design but without senders, and a third design involved target photos that were selected only after the dreams were recorded. Overall, these studies produced what the authors called a significant “communications anomaly” in dreams, with odds against chance of 3 million to one.
In other words, these dream studies tell us that our unconscious minds have access to information that reaches beyond the ordinary senses, both through space and through time. This, in turn, means that when a gut feeling seems to arise “out of nowhere,” it might be due to forgotten expertise or unconscious perception, but it might also originate from an intuitive grasp of distant or even future events. As such, it is advisable that whenever you get an intuitive hunch about something, or in any context—it would be wise to pause and listen to that small, still voice inside you. It’s wiser than you know.