Intuition and our speedy brain
Organization trainer and executive coach Bert Overbeek wrote about business and intuition in ‘The Speedy Brain’ (2015), a book that only appeared in Dutch. For his foreign friends he and business relations there will be English translations of interviews of his books on this weblog. ‘The Speedy Brain’ is the first interview. There will be more interviews the forthcoming months. The interviews will begin with short newspaper’s descriptions of the book.
‘Today’s changing means of communication require quick decisions, both in our work and in our private lives. And to make not only fast but also right decisions, you need the right data. The increase in big data ensures that the expertise of your choice increases. But is this data transparant or complete enough to be able to rely on it? “Follow your intuition” is the advice that often sounds. Although intuition provides speed, it is not perfect either, because our brain is not perfect. Yet there are reassuring experiences with intuition. Speedy decisions that turned out well. This indicates that our intuition is a good tool for making quick decisions.
The book ‘The speedy brain’ is about intuition and decision-making. What can you do with intuition in everyday life, can you use it when you have to make important decisions, or do you have to be careful with it and use something else? Based on practical examples from the business world, research and insights, Bert Overbeek takes you into the world of flash decisions and what your intuition can mean in this regard. Anyone who makes decisions in organizations can benefit directly from intuition as a tool for rapid decision-making with the tips.’
The Flash Brain was a top 10 success when it appeared in 2015. How do you explain that?
It’s about intuition. That’s always a hot topic. The approach was refreshing and a bit against the tide. I am a big fan of intuition, but I am not one of those people who completely rely on it. Many people say: ‘my intuition is always right’. Well, it isn’t. All sorts of research show that we misjudge our judgments of events. People are subjective. No one has a monopoly on the truth.
We misjudge our judgements? Is that what you just said?
Indeed I did. This may sound a bit difficult and probably also very boring, but try to follow me for a while. One of the questions of course is: if we think we are right, with what objectives do we judge our beliefs and judgments about what is right or wrong? The answer is that we do that with our beliefs and assessments. Our convictions tells us that our convictions are right. But that is an unreliable foundation. If I should tell you that my believe is the best believe in the world, would you immediately accept that?
Of course not.
Of course not. You probably might go and have a look at the other believes and compare them with mine. But I see more and more people who say that their opinion is the best of all. “We as people of the truth recommend our truth to you.” Next step is what lots of civilizations preached in the human past. ‘If you don’t believe our truth, we’ll kick your brains out.’
It is naïve to think that people in the internet age will be convinced so easily. What the hell do you think what happens, when you tell someone that your truth is the absolute truth? Nice, the listener thinks, but if you don’t mind I’ll form my own opinion.
The way we perceive the state of the world but also our own conclusions, is very personal and therefore strongly linked to our personal history. So we objectively just don’t know if our truth is the truth. And so we also don’t know whether our intuition is correct.
I assume that it’s good when it works.
I wish you were right. That things ‘work’ doesn’t mean they’re necessarily true or reliable. We should keep in mind that it is not so difficult to manipulate our brain. Placebo effects sometimes have just as much effect as a drug or medicine. I find the power of our mind astonishing. I know someone who has had leukemia for 10 years and should have been dead more than 7 years ago. However, he continues to cycle around happily, drinks his beers and eats Burgundian food. Sometimes he is very tired, but that is fine with him.
Can intuition be compared to placebo?
I think it works to believe that your intuition is always right. And as I said, for people it is true when it works. Even if it isn’t. That gives a safe feeling and reduces stress. So the idea that we know what’s going on, and that our gut feeling never deceives us, keeps us sane. And what does it matter actually? If you don’t know exactly what’s going on, it’s fine if you think you do know it. It’s just a little difficult to argue with you then.
If we don’t understand that we could be wrong, but assume that what we think is the objective truth, it can make us unaccountable and even dangerous. Then we can start to think that other people obviously don’t want to know how things are, that they deny the truth or act out of bad motives.
But you can determine afterwards whether you were right, can’t you? Afterwards you can see what kind of gut feeling you had, and then you know whether it was right, isn’t it?
It would be nice if it worked like that. When I started the book I hoped I could tell at the end that we can trust our intuition blindly. And that you can learn to improve your intuition by looking back at your gut feeling and then checking it with the eventual event. But unfortunately we don’t do that reliably. We remember better what we got right than what we didn’t get right.
Compare it to dice. You tell your fellow players that you are sure that you will throw a lot of sixes that night. And every time you roll a six, you yell out loud, “You see, I told you so.” You ignore it if you roll 1,2,3,4 or 5. Conclusion? You perceive selectively. And that is exactly what our brain does with intuition. You count the number of times you felt something right beforehand, but you don’t count all the times you didn’t.
What causes this?
The human brain has evolved over millions of years. Our species has evolved on steppes, in jungles and in deserts into the homo digitalis that it is today. Our brain is made to survive in natural surroundings. It is made to adapt smartly, to feed and reproduce, and to create security. In addition, it makes life a little easier through the development of techniques.
So that brain is a great tool in certain contexts, but it’s not necessarily made for a digital world. It’s anything but perfect and that’s why it often misses the point about objectivity and truth. It is manipulable and so is our intuition. One exception wrapped in an emotional story sometimes hits us more than a statistic which gives a much broader and better picture. But statistics are also duller.
Something that surprises us triggers our memory. When your intuitive predictions don’t come true, it’s less surprising than when it does. Then it quickly becomes something magical, because we often do not understand the speed of our brain itself and don’t know exactly what we have stored in it.
And then we’re going to think it’s something alien or magic. It would be the voice of God, the higher consciousness, the universe.
And isn’t it?
Well, we never know, of course. I have great respect for people like the biologist Richard Dawkins and Ricky Gervais, but I’m less certain about this existence of non-material phenomenons than they are. They don’t believe in a non-material world at all. A deity is baloney in their eyes, an invention of men. And influences from dimensions we don’t know are also products of the human imagination.
And that also applies to intuition. In their eyes, that is not a voice of God, but simply a product of your brain. This might be the case, but I don’t want to exclude anything, not even the existence of a deity. What do we know about the processes behind nature, about other dimensions? How come that we think everything is known for us. We have improved our ability to describe how things work, but that doesn’t mean we know the details of it. Then we are in the midst of the knowledge illusion with all our scientific conceit.
So people can quietly believe in their gods and truths?
They can. Of course. But it is certainly not completely harmless. If people come to believe that what they think is a God-inspired truth, it can lead to serious excesses and even the killing of fellow human beings. In general, things are not going that far and it is all fairly harmless, although the discussions have all become more intense since Covid. We don’t currently excel at putting our own ideas into a broad perspective. Political misconduct is not only objectionable these days, but is even associated with Satanism and pedophilia. The point is that it’s hard to refute that in a discussion. But the burden of proof lies with those who claim that. Anyone who accuses someone of something serious must be able to prove it.
Do you think the vehemence of the discussions has something to do with the idea that we misjudge our reviews?
Oh yeah. If we think we have a monopoly on the truth we’d like to have a debate about it. And then we also think that we have the right to bang our fist on the table. Or to walk into a mall with a gun and start shooting around. Or to drive a car into an unsuspecting crowd of people. I know those are excesses but they have to do with too much faith in our ideas.
In ‘The Speedy Brain’ I quoted a professor who shows what can go wrong in our assessments of people, situations and events. But I could also have quoted American brain experts like Goldberg, Levitin or Kahnemann. Anyone who knows a little more about the human mind will tell you that our brain is easy to deceive. And higher or lower education plays no role. Neither does political preference.
What else can go wrong in our brain when we judge something?
Everything. For example, it is more sensitive to stories than to facts. The way in which we tell the story has an influence which distorts our image of reality. In addition we tend to base our opinions too much on recent events or on our first impressions. Even then our image is distorted.
Our brain is also stubborn. Once it has chosen a course it is difficult to let go, even if it does not work. We think it depends on everything except the course. This is as common as wishful thinking. This is when you want something so badly that you start to emphasize the advantages more than the disadvantages.
Our predictions for the future are also interesting. If you look back in history, you will notice that we could not predict most developments in advance. Yet we think it is possible, and we make predictions and believe that those predictions are correct. Experts in particular have a hand in it, but actually we all do it.
And do we really not realize that ourselves? Wouldn’t you say we learn through experience?
Unfortunately our brain doesn’t register that it is so easily misled. Unless you are aware of this and keep it in mind constantly. But who has the time or the inclination for that? So we ramble on, seeing our beliefs as perfect judgments of the truth and the beliefs of dissenters as misconceptions.
Today I think I can see the tendency to go even further. That we see dissenters as deliberate liars, people who willfully violate the truth. They are called Satanists or pedophiles and all without hard evidence. It is suggested that the evidence is clear, but a deeper study of it shows this is not the case.
These very serious accusations are based on reasoning that connects existing facts based on convictions with one or more assumptions. That’s the order. First the conviction and from there the facts are collected. But with that fact collection, the data that contradict the belief are ignored. And that’s how it works.
And what does that mean for intuition?
That we do not distinguish our sharp insights from our fears and misjudgments. And then we also suffer from a few illusions. There is a very nice book about it called ‘The Invisible Gorilla’. The authors show that our brains like to be satisfied quickly.
Remember brain activity takes energy. Uur brain uses 20% of the energy available to us. The brain is therefore efficient. It works coarsely. If something is difficult and apparently not immediately necessary, it is ignored. Many people don’t like complexity unless it’s presented in a simple way. But things are often complex. If you want to understand something really you often have to spend time on it. Many people prefer to watch a Netflix movie.
What illusions do we suffer from?
Oh, there are about six that are mentioned. I will name two; the other can be found in my book. First of all we have the illusion of attention. An example. When we are in a car, our brain tends to focus on cars. This often leads to accidents, especially on highways, for example with motorcycles. Because we are focused on car traffic we miss the motorbikes. This happens not only in those kinds of situations, but also in mental issues.
Do you have examples of that?
An interesting example is that people say about the Netherlands that it is too full. There are too many people. An argument that you often hear in the discussion about migrants. There would be no more space. But it is rubbish. There is plenty of room. Only 13% of our land is cultivated. That does not mean that you have 87% available for even more buildings, but there are really a few percentages that can be made available for migrants. 53% of my country is agricultural land. 34% is nature and indoor and outdoor water. Did you know?
I don’t think many people know this. While you hear quite a lot of people say that our country is too full. I sometimes ask the participants in my training courses something that they do not know. For example: how many Chinese do you think smoke cigarettes? Then the craziest numbers roll out. I also ask them not to think too long about it. Afterwards, however, I ask them how they came to their answers. And guess what? Although they gave their answer in a few seconds, it turned out that there were whole reasons behind it. Our brain therefore quickly answers the questions we ask. Those answers are not always correct. But do you think your brain registers that you are wrong?
In the meantime, I don’t dare to believe it anymore, no.
Interestingly, your brain has a kind of library, from which it retrieves information and connections between that information in a moment. It just means that there we learn also incorrect information and accept it as correct information.
Just one more example. The people who think that too many migrants are entering the Netherlands are strongly focused on the examples of this. In any case they are less focused on the examples that contradict it. You will always find examples and arguments to support your opinions. But too often you miss or ignore the points of view that contradict your opinion.
Are you bored already?
No, keep going
People make the truth from a part of the truth. They emphasize a certain part of reality, but most of the time they forget the other parts. They may also refer to people who express their points of view better than they do themselves. But they can just as easily suffer from the attention illusion, only they have gathered more data or can articulate it better. So much for the attention illusion.
And then there is the knowledge illusion. We think we know something, but that’s just not the case when we are examined. Time and again it appears that people, especially in the internet age, are superficially informed. It is an information paradox. We have more and more information at our disposal, but it seems as if we are developing less and less depth in that sea of information and more and more confusion. But we camouflage our lack of knowledge with interesting arguments.
Can you name one?
Yes, often intuition or feeling is involved.
‘I don’t know this exactly, but that is not necessary, because my feeling tells me how it is. That never deceives me.’ Discussion is of little use in those situations. How are you going to prove that the feeling is not always right? ‘Research shows us’ should be an argument, but people are more interested in their opinions than in research which is much more reliable. Feeling has become a sacred house these days. We are not allowed to discuss it. In the past you were not allowed to criticize faith. Now this is the case with feelings and intuition. It has become more important than proven knowledge, which is often perceived as too complicated and difficult.
The reality, of course, is that we simply don’t know so much as we think we do. Moreover, we, the non-experts, are far from all that available data. Despite big data. It’s also not that easy to say honestly to yourself: I now have this and that picture of the situation, but there is probably much more to say about it. People you hear say that are over 70 years old.
Scientists also don’t know as much as we think they do, although they often admit this. Yet they are often very firm too. Many things that we assert with certainty will eventually be overtaken by new insights. Truthfulness doesn’t suit anyone. Perhaps we should become more suspicious of our own ideas.
People have discovered and invented wonderful things. And we regularly see that people were right with their intuition. There are examples in my book. A firefighter who saves his colleagues, because he is the only one who realizes that something is not right in the room where they are standing.
Or an art historian who is the first to discover that a museum image from classical antiquity is not authentic. While he himself doesn’t quite know what he’s seeing. And the rest of the experts think he’s crazy. At some point, however, they discover that he is right. Which is not so easy, because there was an entire exhibition in the American Getty Museum about it. And a lot of money.
And how does it work, if the intuition is right? What do those people see, who are right?
Many people have thought since immemorial times that it is a heavenly inspiration, a gift from the universe or a deity. That’s what the firefighter thought. But the examples have been extensively researched, and it appears time and again that knowledge and experience are indispensable for a strong intuition. It does not surprise me that people themselves do not know where an insight comes from and start thinking magically about it.
We learn continuously. Sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. In particular we don’t always realize everything we pick up unconsciously, but our brain stores it somewhere. Then when we ask a question the brain immediately releases its information. It doesn’t have to be right, but it can be. Our brain works uncontrollably fast.
We humans can’t do much more than start from what we think or feel. We don’t have to trust that. But we can be a little more modest in the discussions. And don’t act so pedantic. In my book you will find a checklist, so that you can learn to distinguish whether your intuition is correct. We need others to understand things better. Our homo sapiens species can be very strong, if it wants to work together and shape its love for planet, animals and fellow humans.
Your book was published seven years ago. How do you rate your book from then?
A lot has happened since then, with Covid perhaps being the most drastic but also the Russia-Ukraine issue spiraling out of control. There is a climate crisis, there are denials of that crisis, the balance of power in the world is starting to change, with China currently holding the best cards. And then there are all kinds of political incidents, the Me2 cases and artificial intelligence. The polarization in my own country is increasing enormously. People has lost their respect and politeness.
I think the book The Speedy Brain has actually become more interesting because of all these developments. Although I don’t have the illusion that everyone agrees about this. Some will find it too rational and too scientific. However, my own criticism on The Speedy Brainis that it could have been scientifically much better. I think that’s the book’s weakness. Not all studies in the book are representative. It is based on experience, books and the internet.
I still stand behind the core of the book. It puts the finger on the sore spot where our thinking is concerned. Thinking is the basis of a lot of feeling, intuition, hassle and arguing. It is often called feeling. People say they feel something, but then express a thought.
You also say somewhere that our thoughts are based on emotion.
That seems contradictory. Is feeling the basis of thinking or thinking the basis of feeling?
Both happen, I think. It is important for us to understand what a feeling is and what a thought is. And in my view it is even more important that we understand that our feelings and thoughts are allowed to be there, that they are often beautiful and make us happy, but also that we can take them seriously. And that’s more than just confirming them. Looking at it critically is just as important. That deepens and enriches and makes life just that little bit more interesting.
I also understand that a lot of people have difficulties with The Speedy Brain. It tells you that you cannot blindly trust your feelings, and feeling is definitely very popular in spiritual management circles.
People think I am too rational. Well, I score nine on a scale of nine when it comes to emotion. And I’m a big proponent of environments that deal smoothly with emotion and feeling. My book also doesn’t want to say: stop intuition. It wants to make clear that you can certainly use it, but there are a few conditions that make it stronger. If you understand those conditions, intuition is absolutely indispensable.