Intuition, brain and business (5)

P1020471In Holland my book ‘The high speed brain’ appeared in the Spring of 2015 and has reached the top 10. The book is about intuition, business and the brain. Until now there is no English translation. Some English speaking people asked me if it was possible to do a translation in English.  I hope I managed to do it in understandable English. And I also hope you can see it as a service. This is part 5 (chapter 6 from the book) . First 4 parts (5 chapters) are to be found on this blog.

Chapter 6. The limbic system and other jammers of intuition

To take better decisions, we should know our intuition quite well. And to understand more of intuition, we must recognize what hunches are based on intuition and what hunches are based on other ‘ sources ‘ in our mind. This chapter will help you there. Intuition is a wonderful example of cooperation of our brain parts. The miraculous speed at which our attractors (or neuro network systems) are dealing with information is similar to the speed on other biological and physical phenomena. Think of the speed of light, or the speed at which a crocodile captures a gem. They may astound and enchant us, bus they don’t guarantee per se that our intuitive choices are right. Simply because our brain and our attractors are not made with a high degree of perfection. Evolution is not a perfect creator. It makes something and if the situation demands it, it applies something to new circumstances. There are corrections afterwards.

Compare it with a computer which capacity you want to extend. To do such a thing you have to replace the existing disc by another. With a computer this is quite easy, but nature just can’t replace one part by another. This would take thousands, hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of years. Old parts that were useful for human beings one million years ago are still there, even when they bother us in modern times. Nature has changed and added a few things in there, but it could had been more convenient. Hence, we are confronted with all kinds of awkward, dysfunctional brain reactions and thereby face awkward feelings.

Examples? Here are some. You get a new job and you decide that you’ll never gossip, but you do it anyway. You don’t want to act out of assumptions and prejudgements, but you do it constantly. You don’t want to be nervous for a speech, because then there is a chance that you will stutter. Yet your mouth is getting dry, you feel your stomach and you feel your heart rate rise. You don’t want to fall in love with that colleague, because she has a nice family and you too, and yet you do fall in love. You hate to lie, but just like any other man and woman you have an average of more then ten lies a day. You want to lose weight, but you only manage for six weeks. Then your weight will shoot up as a rocket.

Our beautiful brain is not perfect and the same applies to our analyses and our intuitions. Meanwhile, it gives us the impression that they are correct and we dare to proclaim our minds with self confidence. We rarely doubt the veracity of our views and when other people tell their messages with self-assurance, we won’t doubt their stories too. We really think that self confidence is the same as reliability. We tell each other that absolute truth doesn’t exist, but we are telling this with so much self confidence that it seems as if we are personally preaching the absolute truth.

If you are doubting this, you should read the books of Daniel Kahnemann and Simons & Chabris. Both books offer an amazing picture of the quirks of our perception, of our memory and our views. They show how they come into being, how they can be manipulated and what mistakes we make. Therefore, I will talk about their books. I do this to show the traps of our intuition steps.

However, I first have to tell something about the amygdala and other parts of the so-called limbic system; brain parts that generate reactions which feel as intuition. But they are no intuition reactions but instincts to survive. We have them in common with           animals. The amygdala reactions are as fast as impulses from our attractors, that are formed by knowledge and experience. Because our consciousness is not able to track the speed of the impulses, it is very difficult for us humans to discern what comes from the amygdala and what from the brain attractors.

-Limbic disturbances

Decisions must be taken quickly nowadays. Either faster or slower decisions based on analysis, are failible decisions based on analysis, because our thinking and feeling are fallible. More and more often you hear that our brain is limited, from the biological, evolution and neurological science ‘corner’. Malcolm Gladwell shows examples of people who are losing their ability to face recognition, when they are going through the stress of the moment. He calls this accute autism. In the Bronx police example are the inexperienced agents so sure that their assumptions are right, that they follow them blindly. They don’t registrate that they do one wrong assumption after another.

In reality their amygdala are working. Amygdala are brain parts that assess situations quickly, without a consciousness required. They’ll scan things on security, on survival, on food and on reproductive capabilities. They have a positive function, but they don’t transform us into objective observers or decision makers. Actually I shouldn’t talk only about amygdala but about the “limbic system”, to which also the Cingulate cortex and the hippocampi belong, but I restrict myself here to the amygdala, because they have the strongest influence.

The American neuro scientist Elkhonon Goldberg compares our brain to an orchestra. In this beautiful imagery is the prefrontal cortex the conductor. But it’s a young conductor. The other brain parts, such as the amygdala, we can compare to stubborn old orchestra members which came much earlier in the evolution. The conductor is simply not always powerful enough to have influence on them. Because the prefrontal cortex is the seat of our consciousness, that is sometimes tricky. While it still have to start an analysis, the amygdala have already an answer. This answer we register as a feeling. We feel it as fear, anger, sadness or happiness. We feel happy when things seem to be safe and unhappy when they don’t.

But the amygdala are not critical analists. They give us impulses aimed at our security, on reproductive capabilities or on the presence of food. These impulses are feeling pretty much the same as intuition. As those needs are satisfied the amygdala traffic lights turn to green. When we would look a little more critical at it, then it is questionable whether things are really safe. The amygdala and actually the whole limbic system don’t seem to be made for our 21st century computer age, but for surviving in old primeval forests.

Our brain is misleading us regularly. It pretends for example that it knows things, while this is not the case. In the beautiful Joseph Conrad’s novel ‘ Heart of darkness ‘ the main character is traveling through Africa. On his map there are white spots. These are places that are not known. But our brain pretends that they are known. Where Conrad’s main character is extremely cautious and careful, because he knows he doesn’t know the environment, our brain is self confident about knowing things that it actually doesn’t know. Our brain would ignore the white spots on the map.

Our brain doesn’t like chaotic situations. It immediately tries to change a lack of clarity into clarity, and confusion as structure. It always seems to strive for the no-problem-code ‘Safe!’ That gives a misleading positive feeling about the things you know or don’t know and it gives also a wrong kind of self-confidence on points where you should have no self-confidence.

Fear and suspicion, products of the amygdala, lead to aggression and to emotional tension. And this has consequences. An increased heart rate for example, when there is stress. A heart rate of around 175 leads to tunnel visions and misjudgements. The ability to interpret faces is dwindling. At a quiet heart rate this is different. Then you evaluate things sharper and because of this you can rely more on your intuition. The heart rate shouldn’t be too low, because Adrian Raine found out that there is a connection between a low heart rate and serial killing. Serial killers often have a low heart rate, he suggested.

There are expert and experienced people whose heart rate doesn’t increase in stress situations. They have less traps when it comes to intuitive acting. Gladwell thinks just like Klein that people can develop this by training. Put people as often as possible in practical situations that are alike these types of conditions, they claim. It seems that your total system must be quiet in those situations to have a well functioning intuition in as many circumstances as possible. Your amygadala and the other parts of the limbic system can be great jammers then. As we have seen in the example of the agents, where the lack of experience played a role, but thereby also the stress.

Amygdala can mistakenly give you a sense of security which makes you overlook the dangers of our time. Amygdala are a type of safety authorities that occur in preventing a bomb attack. The only thing that they monitor is the safety of the situation. Not the important business appointments. But the dangers today are of a different order than long ago, in the time that the amygdala ‘ grew up ‘. They are not yet set on the modern era. And that may still take hundreds of millennia too, because evolutionary growth processes are not ready. Things can go very rapidly in nature but also extremely slow.

Amygdala are thereby security guards that are not quite set to the threats of modern times, making them calling a situation ‘safe’ that is not safe. As comparison: amygdala are medieval Knights from which are guarding modern buildings. An example as an illustration. Freek Zondervan worked for 16 years at a cooperation and had become one of the more experienced employees. By that experience he was a good sparring partner for his people, but his management was less happy with him. When they wanted to make a change he resisted with all kinds of substantive knowledge arguments.

This led to irritation in the management, but Freek felt completely safe. His amygdala differentiated no threat. No one was openly hostile, but in the meantime there were talks behind his back about his possible departure. He had been able to notice this when he had paid a little more attention. But he found the situation safe. There was nothing in his system that warned him. The alarm bells didn’t ring because his amygdala observed no signs of insecurity.

It is wonderful that our brains are able to provide autonomous information. The point is however that it is not only delivering knowledge and experience, but also the impulses of the amygdala and the limbic system. And these are less reliable when we talk about decision making. I call this activity of the amygdala and the limbic system limbic disturbances. They are the crocodiles, snakes and poisonous spiders that has made the paradise of our intuition unsafe, and we can’t ignore them.

And then there are the other obstacles in our thinking that affect the quality of our analyses, intuition and decisions. Here I want to remind you to the previously mentioned books by Kahnemann and Chabris & Simons. I take some more time for it, because you probably want to know which things hinder you in making the fast and right choices. It is not just about quick decisions and to intuition but also about your ability to estimate things in a correct value. In other words: is your judgement about your first judgment correct? Otherwise you will take the wrong decisions.

-Chabris and Simons: the shortcomings of our intuition

It is often asked whether our intuitions are reliable. There are examples of people who got it right with their brain waves. But are those examples a reason to believe that intuition works always at everyone or works regularly in most people? There is a very good reason here to doubt. This reason is the extensive proven human tendency to overestimate himself and his judgment. Because we overestimate our predictions, the way we perceive, our way of assessing, the accuracy of our memories and the quality of our intuition. We are simply not reliable when we are assessing our own estimations!

This confusing and somewhat painful conclusion we can draw from the research by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. The two wrote ‘The invisible gorilla’ and in this book the scientists describe that they discovered:

  1. That human perception has many shortcomings. We don’t notice certain things that happen right in front of our nose. Especially if we focus on something. This includes suddenly passing bikers who we don’t see because we are focused on cars.
  2. That people do not perceive or notice that their judgments and interpretations of observations aren’t right. Chabris and Simons give the example of a woman dressed up as a gorilla. They let her run for a while during a basketball match in the field. The people there got the command to count the number of balls the players of one of the teams throw to each other. The majority doesn’t see the gorilla. But the majority of that majority tells afterwards, that they would have certainly noticed the gorilla if there had been any. In other words: we think that we are more alert than we are.
  3. That human memory remembers things incorrectly. Chabris and Simons give the example of 9/11. People who have experienced the event together, remember it differently. President Bush for example was sure he had seen pictures of the plane that had flown in the first tower. But what turned out to be? There were no images of this. Our memory throws things together.
  4. That people don’t registrate there memory mistakes themselves. They think that their memories are correct. It always scares them if this is not the case. At first they don’t believe that their memory can be wrong.

How is it possible that we fool ourselves by our ideas and hunches? Where does that come from? We don’t know this for sure but a beautiful statement is this. Humanity has only since a short time good, recorded data. Only a few thousand years now we registrate things by writing so that we can measure them. Until that time, our ancestors also had to solve the problems of everyday’s life. They had to be satisfied with experiments and assumptions. They did this the one time better than the other, but of course the successes were remembered. You may see their solutions as situation bound theories and models; often based on no more than a limited amount of events or human experiences. Those solutions were then taken as truth.

The mechanism to explain things was necessary in order to survive. In religions this incline to declarations and explanations was once seen as the root of evil. The biblical tree of knowledge of good and evil is an example. Our brains are trained to survive. Everything that has immediately to do with survival is more exciting than other things. That is why a sensational story is more attractive to us than a nuanced consideration. We find that often boring. The story of a mother who lost her daughter to cancer due to an error in the hospital immediately speaks to our imagination. That that hospital has made the fewest errors in 50 years doesn’t matter anymore. That one story determines our image. And our opinions are laced with such stories.

Our ideas are also an inheritance of evolution. And that explains why we value them so high, while they are not correct. They have served us hundreds of thousands of years. But Chabris and Simons call it illusions. They argue that people have a strong believe in these illusions, regardless of their intelligence level. They mention a total of six of them. The bad thing of illusions is that they make our assessments, estimates and beliefs unreliable. And that is where the next chapter is about.


  1. Our brain deceives us and we get no signal of them when we don’t understand or know something. We will therefore have to increase our self-critical ability. And for this we need reflection time.
  2. Train yourself to recognize your stress.
  3. Our automatic evaluation systems are no longer adapted to the modern era. You don’t recognize modern dangers as dangers. Development of intuition also means then that you are conscious about it.                         (To be continued Bert Overbeek is trainer, personal and team coach and  management developer  His work is much based on recent research about the human brain and mind., pitcher

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