How I Learned to Trust My Intuition

I am a Virgo. The primary characteristic of Virgos is their love of logic, their reliance on reasoned, rational thought. Yet all my life I have had occasional flashes of insight or foreboding that come seemingly from nowhere. It took me a long time to learn to call these flashes intuition and to trust them for what they are—insight from outside the rational realm.

I have had several intuitive experiences during my lifetime, but by far the most salient one occurred during the summer when my daughter was 3½ years old. She was enrolled in a preschool day camp that summer that was going on a field trip to the city zoo. Several high school and college student volunteers, along with some parents, were going to accompany the children; the ratio of adults to children was 1:2. Since I was not required to go along to the zoo, I was looking forward to having a few free hours when I could go grocery shopping and run errands such as going to the bank and the post office unencumbered by a small child. The morning of the field trip, as I was packing my daughter’s lunch and getting ready to drive her to camp, I had a very strong feeling that I should forget about my errands and go to the zoo. The feeling even grew stronger as we drove toward camp. When we got there and I asked the teacher if she had enough adults going on the trip, she said that she did and that I did not have to go. So I acted against my intuition and went grocery shopping while my child went to the zoo. 

I should emphasize here that the feeling I had that morning was not guilt about shirking my maternal duty. It was definitely a warning, a persistent feeling of anxiety that I have come to know as “generalized dread,” the premonition of a premonition. I did not have any particular vision of something bad happening (i.e., this was not a specific foretelling of the future), but the feeling was very strong.

I arrived back to the camp just before the bus returned. As the bus pulled in and the door opened, I felt a sudden physical pain in my stomach. I watched everyone getting off the bus, but my daughter did not appear. When the bus was empty, I climbed on board and walked up the center aisle checking all the seats to see if she might have fallen asleep. When I still didn’t see her, I went to the front of the bus, got down on my hands and knees, and looked under the seats on both sides of the aisle. I had known, though, from the minute I climbed up the bus steps that I was not going to find her on or under the seats. With a sense of inevitability I acknowledged that my daughter had been left behind at the zoo.∗

The feeling that struck me the morning of the zoo field trip was intuition. When I was working on my doctorate in psychology I had the opportunity to study intuition in the context of critical thinking, part of the study of how we know what we know. Paul and Binker (1992, p. 8) define intuition as “[t]he direct knowing or learning of something without the conscious use of reasoning.” Levy (1997, p. 241) defines intuition as “1. Direct or immediate knowledge or insight, without intentional effort, rational thought, or conscious judgment. 2. Perception by means of the unconscious; a strong premonition or hunch in the absence of objective empirical evidence.” The distinguishing characteristic of intuition is that it arrives without conscious effort or thought on our part; it is non-rational.

Whatever the source of intuition, its non-rational nature means that some proponents of critical thinking disallow its validity. Halpern (1998, p. 450) implies this when she says, “when the results of a scientific study of day care are pitted against intuition or the observations of a single individual, the general public tends to find these two sources of information equally compelling.” With the phrase “observations of a single individual” Halpern is referring to the “person who” fallacy, an invalid form of argument that goes like this: “Who says smoking causes lung cancer? I knew a man who has smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for 40 years, and he doesn’t have lung cancer.” By linking intuition with this form of false reasoning, Halpern is dismissing intuition as equally false.

Other proponents of critical thinking are a bit less strident about the value of intuition. Paul and Binker (1992, p. 8), for example, caution that “[a] critical thinker does not blindly accept that what he or she thinks or believes but cannot account for is necessarily true…. Critical thinkers may follow their inner sense that something is so, but only with a healthy sense of intellectual humility.” Levy (1997, p. 110), in a footnote, offers a muddy distinction between intuition and critical thought: “When you have an intuitive hunch, remember that although the intuition is always real, it may or may not be right.” (His lack of clarity in defining the terms of this distinction may itself be seen as a flaw in critical thinking.)

These last two quotations point up the problem of considering intuition within the framework of critical thinking. Paul and Binker, and Levy all apparently want to allow intuition a place at the critical thinking table but cannot adequately overcome the obstacle posed by trying to incorporate a non-rational way of knowing into a concept defined by its adherence to reason. 

But although critical thinking focuses on the use of logic and reason to construct a valid argument, there is another part to the definition of this construct: metacognition. That is, critical thinking also involves metathinking, or thinking about thinking (Halpern, 1998; Levy, 1997; Paul, 1990). One component of critical thinking is the ability to analyze an issue and determine which critical thinking elements are most appropriate for it. (Deciding which brand of toothpaste to buy does not require the same expenditure of critical thinking energy as does the decision about whether to have an abortion.) In this sense, then, we can incorporate intuition into the critical thinking process by recognizing that intuition may be appropriate in some situations but not in others.

We are still stuck, though, with trying to explain when intuition may be an appropriate critical thinking tool and when it may not be. This distinction is hard to make because of the nature of intuition: Although we may be able to define what intuition is, it is impossible to say where it comes from. One possible explanation for intuitive insight is that our unconscious mind picks up on and processes clues from the environment that we do not consciously register. A woman walking alone to her car in a deserted parking lot late at night will consciously look for potential danger. But even if she doesn’t notice anything specifically threatening, her senses may unconsciously pick up unnoticed stimuli and warn her to flee. This may also be what is happening when we come in contact with a person who “gives us the creeps,” though we cannot explicitly say why. But this explanation cannot account for my intuition on the morning of my daughter’s trip to the zoo, as there was no concrete person or situation present for my unconscious mind to react to.

Intuition itself often lets me know in which situations it is appropriate. I do not have intuitive insight about every decision—even every major decision—I must make on a daily basis. Moreover, I cannot summon intuition; it arrives on its own, unbidden (or at least not consciously bidden). Over the years I have noticed that my intuition only operates for very important matters, and because it appears only infrequently, I pay attention to it when it does arrive. In effect, then, I have learned not only to trust what my intuition tells me, but also to trust it to appear at appropriate times.

I have had a few other “gut feelings” in my life—though none as dramatic as the one related here. But every time I have let my head overrule my gut, I have regretted it. I have finally learned that I should trust my intuition—albeit with a healthy sense of intellectual humility. 


Halpern, D. F. (1998). Teaching critical thinking for transfer across domains: Dispositions, skills, structure training, and metacognitive monitoring. American Psychologist, 53, 449-455.

Levy, D. A. (1997). Tools of critical thinking: Metathoughts for psychology. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

Paul, R. W. (1990). Critical thinking: What every person needs to survive in a rapidly changing world. Center for Critical Thinking and Moral Critique. Rohnert Park, CA: Sonoma State University, pp. 44-67.

Paul, R. W., & Binker, A. J. A. . (1992). Glossary: An educator’s guide to critical thinking terms and concepts. Critical thinking handbook series. Center for Critical Thinking and Moral Critique. Rohnert Park, CA: Sonoma State University, pp. 1-14.

*This story does have a happy ending. The zoo police had found my daughter wandering around the enclosed children’s zoo. They took her to their office and entertained her until I could drive there to pick her up.

© 2012 by Mary Daniels Brown