Economist Daniel Kahneman says, “Intuition is thinking that you know without knowing why you do.” Practice and experience allow your brain to match patterns and respond appropriately without conscious thought.
In a famous study, Adriaan de Groot asked expert and novice chess players to view a position for a few seconds and then reconstruct it from memory. When the position was one that could occur in real games, the experts performed significantly better than novices. However, when the position was created by placing pieces at random, the experts performed no better than novices. Why would this be?
The experts had previously seen and analyzed countless chess positions, which allowed them to connect patterns to ones they already knew instinctively and thus were better at recognizing actual chess positions than the novices.
In neuroscience, this parsing and grouping of information in the most efficient way possible is called Chunking.
Barbara Oakley, an engineering professor at Oakland University and whose Learning How to Learn is a hugely popular online course, says, “Chunking is the mother of all learning…when you know something so well that it is basically a snap to call it to mind and do it or use it. Creating neural patterns — neural chunks — underpins the development of all expertise.”
Instinctive decisions appear intuitive, but they are just the product of extensive practice and profound experience. One way to create neural chunks is to follow Adam Grant’s simple three-step process:
- Learn something and then quiz yourself. Quizzing helps you practice retrieving information (and makes it “stickier”).
- Teach someone else. Research shows that even just expecting to teach helps you learn more effectively.
- Connect what you’ve learned to something you already know. “Associative learning” creates context and meaning. You’ll only need to remember differences and nuances (which is how chess Grandmasters can play blindfolded.)
It seems as if there’s no substitute for great experiences if you want to be able to act on your intuition alone.