By Jonathan Milne, Managing Director of The Learning Connexion
Third in the TLC Super Powers series
Creativity and intuition inform each other. Painters have a sense of knowing where to make the next mark. Sportspeople have a sense of where the ball is going to be next. Cooks have a sense of knowing what to add to a meal.
How does intuition work? Francis P Cholle says: ‘Intuition is a process that gives us the ability to know something directly without analytic reasoning, bridging the gap between the conscious and non-conscious parts of our mind, and also between instinct and reason.’
The gap between them is big. Our brains process sense-based information at the rate of about 11 million bits per second – about 220,000 times faster than we process ‘conscious’ information – about 50 bits per second.
Translating this into a running race, our sense-based input runs 50 metres in a second. In that time our logical thinking would move less that one-quarter of a millimetre.
Why have we evolved to receive sense-based information at such speed?
The short answer is that it helped us to survive and evolve.
How we process the information isn’t fully understood. In my own modest achievement playing table tennis, I realised my hand often moved faster than I could think. If you watch sport on television you can see better examples in nearly every competitive sport. Players link calculation and action much faster than conscious thought.
Experienced artists do something similar. A painter can take into account the whole work and add a single touch of detail without seeming to ‘think’. Take for example this painting (pictured left) by Rita Angus. How did she decide where to make each brushstroke? Maybe they’ve learned how to respond as a result of many years’ experience. In other words, intuition can be improved with practice.
Over the years I’ve paid more attention to intuition. One of my goals is to stay clear of the traps of wish fulfilment and ungrounded fears. In prehistoric times humans needed to avoid dangerous predators. Today our fears are fed by the internet, while wish-fulfilment is exploited by dodgy marketers.
The paradox of intuition is that it can be the key to success while exposing us to danger. A counter-intuitive tactic is to stay open to ‘mistakes’ while avoiding trolls. This has something in common with the Japanese American artist Isamu Noguchi, who said:
"You can find out how to do something and then do it or do something and then find out what you did."
If you know what you’re going to achieve, it can’t be creative. I trust intuition to guide me. I know this works a lot better than fretting over whether each action I take is RIGHT. Try to achieve total concentration and play the trick of ‘care without caring’.
At the end of the process, I switch on my logical thinking to figure whether the result is OK. At a practical level, I consider whether the result is fit for purpose, and at another level I ask if I like it. Logical thinking works to reduce the hazards of wish fulfilment and ungrounded fears.
Perhaps the hardest skill is to allow things to unfold slowly. Sense-based thinking happens fast while logical thinking plods in the distance. In art experiments, I’ve become more willing to live with a ‘result’ for days before deciding what to do next. Ditto with amazing offers to get a bargain. When you let a ‘wish’ simmer you’re more likely to find an option that costs little or nothing.
In either case, I almost always arrive at new possibilities. Where do they come from? It’s the magic mix of experience and reason.
For scientific doubters, this is the way big inventions begin. The early stages can be very intuitive because no one knows what’s going to happen. As results arrive we shift into a stage of refinement that brings in plenty of technical skills. Aircraft and automobiles are good examples. So are vaccines. Like it or not, such creations are always experiments and are never totally resolved.
How do we improve our intuition?
The arts give us lots of opportunities. Drawing is a great teacher.
When you draw without fretting you’re enabling your logical thinking and your intuition to work together.
Start by setting up a simple workspace. What do you need? Then get into action.
- Try a series of drawings without looking at the paper. Observe your subject (a photo, a scene, something in the garden, your own face in a mirror …). If it doesn’t work out, relax, concentrate and try another one. Experiment with different tools (pen, pencil, charcoal, crayon, fingers and paint – whatever you like).
- Try making a ‘structure’ out of dry stalks of grass, twigs, or whatever you have available. Make something intriguing. If it seems ‘boring’, think what you might do to rev it up. If you get stuck, leave it for a day or so and then have another look.
- Sometimes you can trick yourself by exploring odd techniques where the result doesn’t seem to matter. For example:
- Draw with your left foot
- Draw with your eyes shut
- Draw your breath.
Outside of art you may find that you use intuition and sense-based thinking more than you notice. It’s worth paying attention to people in supposedly uncreative roles. Checkout operators, craftspeople, builders, mechanics, truck drivers, farmers and sportspeople often develop excellent skills that support their specialty. In my journalism days, I had a few rides with traffic police who were able to process visual information in a flash.
Cerebral jobs aren’t ideal for improving intuition – especially if they are so concerned with rules that they disconnect from sense-based information.
There’s another zone worth exploring. Carl Safina’s book ‘Beyond Words – What Animals Think and Feel’, is an exploration of skills used by elephants, wolves and whales. These wondrous mammals are intuitive, inquisitive, adventurous and adaptive. They’re not known for their novels and paintings, but they demonstrate many of the core attributes of creativity. Maybe they should have a place at the table when humans are talking about the future of our planet. Maybe you should be there too.