The Intuition Toolkit – Knowing What without Knowing Why

Article | Issue: Feb 2024

Intuition has saved lives and averted disasters, and it also lies behind countless innovative decisions.

In JOEL PEARSON’s new book, The Intuition Toolkit, he provides five easy rules for developing intuition, based on trailblazing research by a top Australian neuroscientist and helps us learn when it’s safe to rely on intuition in decision-making and when it’s not.

Read on to discover how a man who is blind can still navigate pathways using intuition.


Daredevil: how the blind can see

A man in his 60s, whom I’ll call Tom, walks confidently but not quickly down a hallway. He is casually dressed, in a short-sleeved button-up shirt, and is followed closely by a man in more formal-looking long-sleeved shirt and dark pants. The hallway looks dated, like something you’d see in an unrenovated old university or older hospital; it has a small sink and a fire extinguisher.

Placed purposefully along the hallway are two garbage bins, a camera tripod, a box of photocopying paper, a desktop inbox, and a cardboard box, all sitting there like some indoor obstacle course. Each object has been placed in the middle or just off to one side of the hallway, so there is no way to walk directly down the hallway in a straight line. The more formal-looking gentleman following Tom is care- fully watching his every move.

As the pair approach the first obstacle, a garbage bin, Tom rotates his hips, aligns his feet – one in front of the other – and steps to the side, up against the wall. He effort- lessly walks past the first garbage bin, and then past the second. Then, just as he looks as if he will walk directly into the camera tripod, he tentatively rotates the other way, stepping to his right and walking around it. Carefully, he then steps around the photocopy paper, and then, once again twisting his body back to his left, he sidesteps the cardboard box, straightens out, and finishes walking down the rest of the hallway.

To anyone watching this, it would seem completely normal, nothing out of the ordinary. But Tom is completely blind. He is considered clinically blind, failing all the standard vision tests. Scans of his brain have shown that due to two strokes, one not long after the other, his visual cortex – the part of the brain under the pointy bit at the back of your skull – was entirely destroyed. He typically walks with a cane, as do many other blind people and requires guidance from sighted people. The man walking down the hallway behind him was actually running a research experiment, testing the ability of blind people to navigate. He was also there to help Tom if necessary and prevent him from falling.

This successful navigation through the hallway obstacle course is astounding. How can a blind man do this without tripping on the obstacles? This is an example of something called blindsight: a condition in which someone can respond to visual events and objects without being aware of them.

Tom’s blindness is not due to damage to his eyes by the strokes. His eyes are perfectly fine. Tom’s is a case of cortical blindness; he is blind because of brain damage. Here’s the fascinating part: somehow, other parts of his brain that were not damaged by the strokes are processing the information from his eyes, unconsciously. Tom is not using sounds to navigate, or echolocation, or any other known method beyond visual input into his eyes. The information about the obstacles on the floor is there in his brain, he is just not aware of it. The striking point is that despite this information being unconscious, he is still able to use it to aid his navigation when walking. This is a powerful example of unconscious information in the brain making its way into action, affecting behaviour.

How can a blind man do this without tripping on the obstacles?

In other tests, Tom was able to discriminate between still photos of happy and angry faces at rates well above guessing, but he could not tell the difference between faces with only neutral expressions; nor could he differentiate between pictures of black and white squares. The scientists performing this research demonstrated that Tom’s amygdala (the tiny area of tissue deep inside the brain that many like to call the lizard brain because it automatically responds to things like emotion) was active in response to him being shown the emotional faces, even though he couldn’t see them. The unconscious information was finding its way to the emotional parts of his brain from his eyes, without going through the usual routes in the visual cortex, which produces visual consciousness. Hence it was unconscious.

He couldn’t see anything, but he could feel and act on the unconscious information in his brain.

There have been other cases of blindsight over the years and they provide some of the strongest examples of how we can use information in our brains without being conscious of it. Unconscious information in our brains is not locked away in somebrain-dungeon with the key thrown out. Unconscious information leaks out into our conscious behaviour, our feelings, ourchoices. These examples of blindsight help inform our understanding of intuition. Intuition is simply utilising the way thebrain is wired to let unconscious information leak through into feelings and actions. Using this information can give you an advantage over someone who ignores it.

In a very real sense, Tom was using intuition to navigate down the hallway. He had the unconscious information in his brain, he had learnt what it means, and he could access it to help him navigate through the world. He could access it in his decisions about the happy or angry faces.

Cases of blindsight, while tragic, show the power of intuition. The trick is to know when and for what you can trust your intuition, then practise using it.





Joel Pearson is the founder and director of Future Minds Lab at the University of New South Wales. An experimental startup which is part agency and part traditional research laboratory; home to a multi-disciplinary team of psychologists, cognitive neuroscientists, data scientists, UX and visual designers.


Joel Pearson is also the founder and MD of MindX, a consultancy, born out of UNSW Future Minds Lab, working with brands including Google, Macquarie Bank, Lexus, PIXAR, M&C Saatchi, The &Partnership, NSW Department of Education and Samsung, that gathers objective data on the ways in which people’s minds work to inform creative outcomes and business development through practical application.


Author: Joel Pearson

Category: Health & personal development

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

ISBN: 9781761109591

RRP: $29.99

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