Tuesday, March 17, 2009


My husband can look at a piece of code (programming) and often spot right away whether it has bugs or problems.

It has been documented on film that some football wide receivers catch a football with their eyes closed.

In hospital days, I could sometimes tell hours before the nurses or doctors that Aidan was going to spike a temp or had something else going on with him. At home, similarly, I could often tell by morning that he was going to have to go to the ER at night.

When my son Sean was a neonate, a few hours after birth, the doctors came in and told me they were moving him to the NICU. The doctor told me he could see nothing obviously wrong, but that he saw "soft signs" that to him warranted closer monitoring and access to higher-level equipment. Half an hour later, Sean went into a state of acute acidosis and struggled for hours. Though the doctor couldn't put his finger on specific clinical symptoms, he had seen a problem before it actually went into acute form.

This intuition, though the actual word is not used, is the subject of the book Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, which is very interesting reading. More on the book here and here.

The author does not use the word "intuition" because he thinks it's a catch-all term for all kinds of judgments, some of them not quite sound:

You could also say that it's a book about intuition, except that I don't like that word. In fact it never appears in "Blink." Intuition strikes me as a concept we use to describe emotional reactions, gut feelings--thoughts and impressions that don't seem entirely rational. But I think that what goes on in that first two seconds is perfectly rational. It's thinking--its just thinking that moves a little faster and operates a little more mysteriously than the kind of deliberate, conscious decision-making that we usually associate with "thinking." In "Blink" I'm trying to understand those two seconds. What is going on inside our heads when we engage in rapid cognition? When are snap judgments good and when are they not? What kinds of things can we do to make our powers of rapid cognition better?
I have struggled with this concept of "intuition" before in trust, and the knowledge of the heart. What does it mean to say that our intuition is telling us something, sometimes when our overt reasoning process is trying to lead us elsewhere? It is undeniable that "intuition" or gut instinct has led people wrong in the past. There are examples in the book. Usually it occurs either when the judger is taking TOO much into account or when he or she is taking too little into account.

An example of the former is a study which had female college-educated types go into a car lot and try to bargain the dealer down to a reasonable price, compared with white males of a similar demographic. Consistently, the males ended up being able to finagle a lower end price. If the study is correct in showing what it was meant to show, the dealer allowed the fact of the buyer being a female to cloud other factors more worth taking into consideration.

An example of the latter is something he called "mindblindedness" sometimes brought on by a state of over-adrenaline. Cops inappropriately shooting at an innocent person often receive visual messages in a distorted way because they are in a state of hyper-vigilance which interferes with their normal ability to read a situation. In the example given in the book, they saw someone trying to pull out a wallet and actually "saw" a gun.

But given the proper trained awareness, and enough time and calmness for the process to work properly, people can make eerily sound judgments in the "blink" time of a couple of seconds, as mentioned in the examples above. The book multiplies the examples.

I like the thesis that our trained consciousness can sometimes come up with a snap judgment that is on target but that we can't necessarily explain verbally right away. That seems to allow me to work on "forming" my intuition about important things without discarding reason, just understanding it differently.

Perhaps it's analogous to the Catholic Christian concept of "forming one's conscience". The Catholic Catechism says:

A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.

This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man "takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin." In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits.

Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one's passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church's authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct.

If - on the contrary - the ignorance is invincible, or the moral subject is not responsible for his erroneous judgment, the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him. It remains no less an evil, a privation, a disorder. One must therefore work to correct the errors of moral conscience.
This seems to me to be roughly analogous to the process of forming right thinking about whatever area of life you are called to be well-grounded in. Almost all the saints and Catholic general wisdom says that moral formation isn't just intellectual knowledge but has to be carried through all the little moments of daily life. When the crunch comes and you go into "default mode" you will have good ways of operating built into your very muscle memory and bottom-line mental processes. But if this process hasn't taken place, or if it's been overly distorted by emotion or appetites, it won't be as reliable as it would have been otherwise.

1 comment:

Stephanie said...

Willa, I can't remember where I read it, but in some spiritual direction type of book the author was pointing out another connection necessary for this process, beyond that of a holistic development of the individual. He said that we need each other for these things.

Now, obviously, that concept is of limited value when you are the one who "just knows" something's a bit off with your child ... but in the context of a whole life, I have begun to see more and more that the theologian needs the pastor, and the pastor needs the mystic, and the mystic need the theologian. I have a suspicion that "man" being in the image of God is partly about this - we have to have all of us to make the image.

That is why, I think, children who form a habit of proper connections (and of making these connections themselves) are better prepared for adulthood. It's the connections that give us the right context for the "blink" decisions so that we don't blink just when something's about to smack us on our faces.