In Holland my book ‘The high speed brain’ appeared at the end of March 2015 and has reached the top 10 in my country. Until now there is no English translation. Some English speaking people asked me if it was possible to do a translation in English. My English is not so good so I took the Google translator. Which still means that I have to spend much time on translating. But I think I managed to do it in understandable English. I hope you can see it as a service. This is part 3. First 2 parts are to be found on this blog.
-When do we take more recourse to guessing? If time is limited. If a quick decision is needed, and if data are not available. Then you choose what seems best. This is something that happens a lot. Companies are a little afraid of it. A lot of companies feel the pressure of fast decisions. But again: in decision-making you need good data, and well-researched information. If they are not there you still have to decide. This happens constantly. In general you can say that ‘ data-driven ‘ decisions in the 21st Century are increasingly necessary and also more difficult. Because we just don’t have the data that we need not fast enough available.
Entrepreneurs know the harmful consequences of it. Some have quite some loss by made losses or missed the profit only because they didn’t have the right data at the right moment. So they made fast and intuitive choices. People who do not believe in these sort of choices use to turn to old or incomplete data or to recent data. But also recent data can give a false picture. And let’s not forget that few of us really make rational decisions. We apply, according to most neuroscientists, our ratio to our emotions; even if we think we take rational decisions. So we build shelters against nuclear wars and find that than a rational decision. In reality we are guided by our fear.
When we finally, after much deliberation, are making a deliberately intuitive choice, we are still not there where we want to be. There may be things that work against the implementation of our decision. For example, provisions, laws and regulations. Then you want something, but it is not allowed according to the law. This is very common. You will always have to control if your amazing brain waves are feasible. The shortest way is not always the shortest way. People beat about the bush every now and then, especially when there are performance rewards. Because of this people hide errors for their executives.
In any case, personal gain and reward systems are a barrier to good decision making. At the time I write this, the Dutch Government is engaged in unethical behavior by housing associations. Industry leaders have, as it turns out, inappropriate carried and pamper themselves with Maserati’s and swimming pools at the expense of tenants. People turn out again and again to sit firmly on their interests, even if it goes into corruption. A smart decision maker should take this type of false business behaviour into account. And that may have a negative effect on intuitive decision.
As I told you only 4% of the managers prefer choices based on intuition. But is this really true? In reality we very often make unconscious choices “at feeling ‘. And if we at last take rational decisions, it turns out that those decisions often are fed by our emotions.
So, the PhD candidate Leo de Wolff in a research note that people are not faithful to a newspaper because of the quality of the newspaper. The loyalty of the reader is an emotional loyalty. One is loyal to the brand, not to the content. The emotion determines the choice to stay at a newspaper or to leave. Is emotion maybe also the reason why the computer the book and the newspaper has given such a stabbing? By emotion in stead of quality content? I for myself know the answer on this question.
- Make sure that the data on which you base your decision are okay.
- Be conscious that data are not perfect.
- Don’t walk away for complexity. And if something is too difficult, draw your conclusions not too quickly.
- As data and facts are missing, simply create a choice. Dare to do an experiment and try something.
- If there are multiple solutions conceivable, just choose one. Here is that trial and error will show you the way.
- Be honest, even if you loose your bonus by it.
Chapter 4. What happens to our brain when we make an intuitive estimation? And what if we make an analysis in advance?
The human brain cannot be avoid anymore these days, when it comes to intuition. The one who understands something of the brain, probably understands more of intuition. There are still people who deny that the brain plays a very important role in the human mind. They ignore the knowledge of recent years and continue to bite in old ideas about how the human mind works. That is why I will explain a little bit about the brain in this chapter. Let me do this on the basis of examples, such as this.
A young doctor in training told me that she was very impressed by older colleagues who quickly understood what was going on with a patient. I asked her if she also had that’ gut feeling ‘ herself. In some cases, she said, but not too often. In addition to this there is the example of a 45-year-old CFO who told me that he was taking more than 70% of the decisions based on his feelings ‘the last years’, This confirms the research in my network.
-Did you do this also when you were younger?, I asked him.
-No, no, he laughed, then I was very analytical and rational.
Here you can notice, that you trust more on your gut feeling when you’re older. But why is that? In the example below I will give a detailed explanation about this.
I do have a few short statements: that ‘ gut feeling ‘ comes from our brain and is a result of intensive learning processes. Something of which we are not always aware anymore. Our learning processes have adapted the brain so much that we can see a pattern very quickly, without even being aware of it. This happens extremely fast, so fast that it amazes us and we have thought for a long time that throbbing spontaneous ideas is something magical. However, it is not surprising that your brain offers you solutions to problems as fast as a ray of light. And if they are correct, you do not need to be amazed too. According to the laws of statistics there are always a few correct matches when you are gambling. So if anyone has predicted something, don’t be too surprised. It would be more remarkable when we never did good guesses.
But how does your brain work when you suddenly get an intuitive hunch? In our brain brain cells are connected to each other. These cells are called neurons. If you learn something new you’ll get new neuronal connections. You’ll understand that more and more brain cells are connected when you are getting older, especially when you keep learning. And when I say that more and more brain cells are connected, I mean millions of connections. Your head is a universe in itself, in which the brain cells form networks. If very many networks are connected neuroscientist Elkhonon Goldberg calls them attractors. These you can compare with galaxies.
I shall illustrate how these networks are forming and organizing themselves, with a few practical examples. When you are young you learn for example that Columbus conquered America in 1492. Your brain creates a network at that time; a set of neurons that intertwine. We call this a neuronetwork. Let’s call it jokingly the Columbus neuro network. This may sound crazy but is less stupid than it seems. The information about Columbus is stored in our brain. Our brain has ‘mapped’ the subject and the information is stored in connected parts.
The Columbus example
We have a lot of neuro networks in our heads. According to recent research and the associated assumptions and hypotheses our brain saves new information in those neuro networks. That what we have learned directs the neurons in our head in such a way, that there is created an Assembly of ‘roads’, let’s say a unique infrastructure. In one brain such infrastructure will be organized differently than in another, because the connections between its neurons are different or because there are fewer connections. The important thing is as far as I knowthat you can change the infrastructure of your brain by learning; not the structure. So: how the neurons connect with each other and not: the location of the neurons.
Neuro networks can connect themselves with each other. In all those neuro networks knowledge is stored, creating links between different types of knowledge and also new knowledge. As a result, you don’t know just something about a topic but you are putting this subject also in a bandage. Or better: your brain does. But not yet your consciousness that comes at the back of the process. So eventually you understand that Columbus ‘ didn’t discover America but that he presented the Europeans a new world. America, however, was ‘ discovered ‘ a long time ago. By Normans but even more by the Indians who lived there already for centuries.
Let us now imagine the boy or the girl you used to be when you were young. Your brain contained all the necessary neuro networks, but not yet sufficient to understand the Columbus story well. There were still a few networks to come. So back to your childhood. You learn somewhere that Columbus discovered America in 1492. There are laid out neuro networks in your head already to help you understand a bit about maps and historical years and dates, so this fact is not too difficult for you. The new fact is stored in a new network that your brain creates. There has been made a new connection: there has been created a new network made of neurons.
After a few years you are reading a book about Indians. This tells you the history of the Sioux. And again a new neuro network is created. The two networks are still two separate areas; you don’t make connections between the data. But you start to wonder. How can we say that Columbus discovered America while there were already living Indians? Who did discover America then?
Because we humans have a natural tendency to choose for cognitive convenience, (in other words do not want to think too long) you probably have dropped the question. And your brain help you there, because it always chooses a solution. It doesn’t matter if the solution’s right, it only matters if it works. In that case, for instance you may have thought that maybe not one of both histories are true. Temporary that is a sufficient answer for our brain.
And then all of a sudden you read something about the Vikings. A new neuro network comes into being. And what is stored in that network? Among other things, that the Vikings had been already in America. This is annoying!
-Huh? How can that happen again?, you exclaim desperately but fortunately your mother is sitting opposite to you. Ans she understands much more of history than your father.
There are currently three new stories in your head. A story about Columbus, a story about the Indians and a story about the Normans. And you will become irritated because the things you’ve learned don’t match. They seem to be opposing to each other. The knowledge networks are still related. And this also applies to the neuro networks.
-What is the matter?, your mother is asking. You are grumbling and you tell her what is the matter. She explains how it has been. The idea about Columbus is written from a Western point of view. From this perspective America was discovered. From the Indians, this is incorrect. For them a white tribe invaded the country in 1492.
So far okay, but there still remains a question.
-But what about the Normans?
-I do not know exactly why but their discovery of America isn’t seen as the discovery of America.
This answer satisfies you and you also understand that it’s OK not to understand exactly how the story about the Normans is, though you’re determined to figure it out.
-So basically Colombus has not discovered America, but he has announced it in Europe.
And your impatience fades away. You understand it.
Beauty: learning and development, expansion and improvement of neuro networks
What happened in the brain in the Columbus-example? Something of a stunning beauty. The three knowledge networks and thus the neuro networks are interconnected. There have been created new connections. It took just some trouble and even irritation, but it worked. If we compare the three networks of above with three counties with villages and towns, then there are not only roads between the towns in the province, but also the three provinces are now connected to each other. Now there is a large neuro network that connects the three areas. Result: more knowledge and more understanding in your brain.
And you have learned that historiography doesn’t have to be objective and that is written always from a personal perspective. So there are more points of view than one. That is an equally important lesson. Also here a new neuro network arises or an existing network changes. And this is what learning is about. First neurons connects themselves into a network. Then the neuro networks turned to larger networks that are expanding further as you get older, in the same way the universe expands.
What you have learned becomes an automatism over time. If someone is asking you now a question about America, then you can answer without thinking. The knowledge is in your head. This means that you don’t consciously think about it any longer, that the knowledge is stored and has been stored in your neuro networks. You make use of it and takes it for granted. You’ll see a Sioux Indian, and you feel what he has gone through. The more you learn in addition, the more things are stored in your subconsciousness and automatisms. And on your 22nd you get a degree in American history. Then you have learned a lot about other countries and you begin to recognize patterns. What happened in America, happened in all areas we call colonies, you know in the meantime. Again and again the same pattern. People living in a country, the Westerners came along, took over the area oppressed the local population and so they became rich. And finally you understand what they up to: making money. And you tend to the conclusion that money is the root of all evil. Wisdom has been born.
Your brain has become lightning fast on the matter. When someone asks you a question it is quickly evaluated by your brain, and you have an immediate answer; even before your consciousness has been able to argue something. Through all those connected neuro networks you have information ready to see through a pattern in a flash, to understand and to feel that a work of art is real or faked. This mechanism is faster than your consciousness; you don’t even have to think about it anymore.
This fast-paced autonomous and self assembling networks that deliver information in are amazing us. I will later show how we used to look at intuition in the past. Then we thought that it was a divine voice, later that it was a voice of the cosmos and finally we called the selective information reduction or intuition. But it is not very important how you have called it once. From the modern neuro thinking there is a fully understandable explanation for intuition. The one who has learned much understands more and also faster. He looks back and immediately discovered the patterns by situations and essences.
So we really have a high speed brain. It is built up over the years and provides information as soon a problem has to be solved. Also because the brain is very made and trained to answer questions that ask for a solution. And what confuses us is, is that our consciousness is not taking part in the process. That the brain offers a solution while we haven’t thought about the matter thoroughly. But afterwards we can look back and we can analyse what we have thought in that flash of a second. And I want the moment to say that I find it wonderful that our brain is so incredibly quickly.
And this is how we may declare earlier examples from this book. The brain will always offer a solution with the information it has stored over the years. The information that it doesn’t have stored is not available. Therefore intuition will become over years more reliable, and it is logical that a physician from 60 is faster than a physician from 30.
Difficult? Of course. And because it is not easy, I will give another example. That deserves this part of my story because it teaches us so well see what intuition is. And because we need intuition as a ‘ tool ‘ in the fast-paced world of the rest of the 21st Century.
The Van Basten example: the brain and intuition
Now I shall give you an example of such a lightning fast and self assembling process in our heads, that offers us solutions before our consciousness is participating. I do that with a goal that Marco van Basten made during the European Football Championship 1988. This simple example shows in an easy way what I explained above. After that, I will also give you some examples of Malcolm Gladwell. I choose his examples, because Gladwell is known as one of the most important modern thinkers about intuition at decision-making.
However, I start with van Basten. A lot of Dutch people of 35 years or older still remember the goal that made the Dutch team European champion in 1988.
What happened? Four Dutchmen were advancing on the half of the Russian team. From left to right: Arnold Muhren, Adrie van Tiggelen, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten. Villacorta gave the ball to Arnold Muhren who passed the ball with a wonderful effect to Marco van Basten who stood in an impossible position on the right. Later, in an interview, Van Basten said that he was a bit tired. He had thereby less energy to walk into the penalty area and made a nice action.
In an interview he said: ‘ I thought I can treat the ball in a complicated way but let’s give it a try, let’s shoot’. He shot the ball at once. It was the final blow for Russia that in the first half had to handle a goal by Ruud Gullit. The Netherlands made 2-0 and it became European champion.
When he was young Van Basten had probably a great talent and an ambitious father who put everything aside for Marco, but followed him also very critically. The talent of Marco was so extraordinary that he became both European Footballer of the year as the best player of the world.
Sometimes people are doing disparagingly about soccer. That it demands a high motoric intelligence and high speed decision making, is something that those people doesn’t register who find soccer ‘ a stupid game ‘, in which 22 grown men are running behind a ball with just a little too much passion. This high speed action is also required in the work of ambulance personnel, firefighters, police officers and military surgeons, to name but a few. Decisions have to be taken quickly. These 2 seconds decisions decide sometimes about people’s lives.
When van Basten afterwards analyzes the goal against Russia, he states that he was tired and had even a consideration to get the ball and do it in a different way, but that he was too lazy to do that, so he shot the ball in the net of the goal.
It is impressive what a man can think in such a mind flash! A relative of mine didn’t believe van Basten.
-That is all nonsense after the event. He has kicked the ball intuitive. He hasn’t thought about it for a second.
My relative compared the goal with the first goal that another Dutch hero Robin van Persie made against Spain at the World Cup of 2014.
-Van Persie was also not thinking when he did this header. Afterwards journalists ask questions about the goal and the guys make some story about it. I would also do.
I can imagine that my family member doesn’t understand that someone can think something in such a short flash. How for heaven’s sake it is possible that van Basten could take such a lightning-fast decision if he thought so many at once? You might think that he just happened to do something, but then he had not shot at the target, then he maybe had shot not at all and had been sitting down along the field in a lawn chair.
Van Basten did not do just anything. He was incredibly effective. All he had learned were the rivers and that one flaming shot was the sea.
And you know now how that works in the human brain. To be able to do what he did, van Basten should have learned a number of things. Once, when he was still a very small boy, walking was difficult for him. To kick a ball was a difficult task and jumping even impossible. When he was in control of all those things after a few years he could master to combine these skills. But then he was still perfect unsuitable for Ajax and AC Milan, the clubs where he became the public’s hero some later.
As a kid he had to learn that they could take away the ball from you and that two against one was normal. He had to discover that the ball had to be kicked between two posts, and that there stood an irritating boy in the goal that tried to stop your shots. He had to learn to look around while running with the ball . He had to know that the ball with the outside of the foot had a different effect than with the inside of the foot. He had to understand that they could be awfully mean against you just to intimidate you.
When you would have seen a video of the development of the brain by van Basten between his 1st and 30th, you would have seen something special. It started with a neuro network, an extension of networks, and then even more networks. Van Basten was then suddenly able to see patterns, such as chess masters can see patterns if they have learned a lot. With football it is not different. Intuitive capped players are football players who have unwittingly saved countless positions and stored information that comes in a flash when there is a need for action, including evaluations and a decision that is carried out by the human motoric skills.
Exchange of information between the neurons is then incredibly speedy over long distances; a bit like a telephone. At a telephone a microphone converts sound into electrical current. That stream moves to a telephone exchange at lightning speed by cables or a radio link. That connects to another appliance and so on. In our neuro networks things are quite the same. An electrical signal is converted into a chemical process. And when we are experienced in a certain area this goes with flash speed. Faster than our consciousness can follow.
Back to van Basten in 1988. The brain landscape of van Basten consists of many countries and road networks, but in the brain the province of Football has become huge. And then there is the pass from Arnold Muhren. In the brain of van Basten flashes unconsciously the possibilities by in hundredths or thousands of a second. He records that his forces are running out. And he makes a choice. That results in 2-0 in the final and secure the European Championship.
And this is how not only his but also your and my intuition works. But in other areas. A good intuition is a brain reward for years of learning, both in theory and in practice. As van Basten in a flash knows that he has to shoot, in the same way some experienced experts know at one glance if something is fake or real. Without being able to reason out. But with a brilliant breakthrough of their knowledge in the twinkling of an eye. Gorgeous!
Ap Dijksterhuis states in his book The smart subconsciousness that our subconsciousness is 200 000 times as powerful as our consciousness. My image from recent neuroscientific publications is that the consciousness is situated in the prefrontal cortex. Apparently there is also a collector that receives information from all nooks and crannies of the brain. That process may indeed be 200 000 times more powerful than the working of consciousness.
The examples of Columbus and van Basten show that intuition is a postanalytical phenomenon. It is the luxury of a trained brain that makes an analysis in a flash. So fast that the possessor of that brain is not even aware that the analysis is made. Something that once was learned, has become a flexible mechanism. But more than that. We are able to understand that the mechanism is flexible. That is easy. But the speed with which that flexibility works, amazes us.
We think thereby that intuition is something that just comes out of nowhere, a knowing without analysis. That’s not likely if I read the examples again. On the contrary, it is the result of all kinds of analyses that you have completed in the past. Long reasonings have become conclusions over time, sometimes even conclusions of one line. That one line however, is a beautiful reflection of all the things you know.
Now you know how intuition works in the brain. You will need this insight to understand the rest of the book. And that is important, because if you understand well your own intuition, you become more effective in your work and your private relationships. You can distinguish misunderstandings from legitimate reviews and assessments. And that will be more and more necessary in the near future.
- Do study! Expand your knowledge for it will expand the power of you neuronetworks Ultimately this leads to a better quality of your intuition.
- Dare to have an opinion, but be open to other perspectives, so that your brain gets more network connections.
- Keep critical on the conclusions that you draw. Later your brain will use these conclusions automatically. If you make a wrong connection, your brain will offer that wrong connection as a solution to a problem. And you will not recognize that your conclusion is wrong.
- It is useful to make afterwards an analysis of things you have felt intuitive. This refreshes the knowledge that you already had.
To be continued
Bert Overbeek is personal and team coach and into management development. His work is much based on recent research about the human brain and mind.