Apotheosis episode 44: Instinct, reason, and intuition. Hand-drawn illustrations of a snake head, outline of a human head with mathematical symbols, and an eye with beams of light, representing instinct, reason, and intuition, respectively.

Episode 44: Instinct, reason, and intuition

Ryan D Thompson Decision-making, Evolution, Perspectives, Skills

Key ideas

The human capacity for reason sets us apart on the evolutionary stage. But our intuition also played a crucial role in our rise to the top. We can cultivate greater intuition through systematic learning and persistent exposure to high-quality information.

  • Hundreds of millions of years of animal evolution forged a crucial tool for survival — animal instinct. The power of instinct allows animals to respond instantly to threats.
  • Our species stood out not for our powerful jaws or lightning-fast speed, but due to our capacity for reason. However, the problem with reason is that it takes time to execute — a luxury that animals don’t have when facing threats to survival.
  • Humans evolved another capacity that played a crucial role in our rise to the top of the food chain. The uniquely human power of intuition blends the speed of instinct with the knowledge gained through reason.
  • We can cultivate our intuition through intentional and systematic efforts to consume high-quality information over a period of years. Highly attuned intuition can be a superpower, analyzing complex patterns and instantly generating profound insights into novel solutions to thorny problems.


The dominance of humans on planet Earth is a somewhat unlikely tale. We’re slow, soft, and not particularly strong. We lack sharp claws, fangs, and venom. Our babies are perhaps the most vulnerable of all creatures and require over a decade of close supervision before they’re ready to survive on their own. And yet, despite our underwhelming physical capabilities, we somehow climbed to the top of the food chain. 

We have our brains and, more importantly, our capacity for reason to thank for that. But beyond our unique ability to think rationally about the past and the future, we have another superpower – the power of intuition. Reason and intuition set us apart from our competitors on the evolutionary stage. In the modern world, we still (for the most part) cherish our powers of rational thought. Yet, we have begun to doubt or diminish the importance of intuition – which is a mistake.

This episode is part of a series looking at decision-making. When we think about making decisions, most of us will likely consider this a highly rational process. It certainly can be, but it isn’t always the primary driver of decision-making. Instinct still drives a lot of our responses to our circumstances. And intuition, if we make the time and effort to cultivate it in its highest form, has played a massive role in our advancement and can continue to do so.

Our path to the top wasn’t a straight shot. Our ancient ancestors had to survive in a forbidding landscape where threats waited around every corner. Millions of years of animal evolution forged a capacity for lightning-fast responses in the animal kingdom – the power of instinct. 

As Robert Greene describes in his book Mastery, instinct kept all animals alive, including our ancestors. Instincts allowed both predators and prey to attack, defend, or flee from danger, responding instantly to stimuli. 

Instinct operates at a speed much faster than thought. Which is to say that rational thinking had to prove its worth, as with all adaptations.

There is some debate about when exactly humans started to develop an advanced capacity for thought – our power of reason. Some assert that a cognitive revolution in the human brain occurred around 50 to 70 thousand years ago. Some believe it was even further back in time, over 100 thousand years ago.

Whatever the case, the human brain began to conceive of the world in a different way from any known species. We could remember the past and envision the future. We soon gained a more comprehensive view of our environment, one that assessed data from the present, compared it with information from past experiences, and created a vision for future actions.

The problem is that this form of thinking takes a lot more time. If our ancestors were to stop and carefully analyze every piece of data about their surroundings, they would have been mastodon food. And we probably wouldn’t be here to have this virtual exchange. 

Instead, as Robert Greene points out, we needed a way to synthesize our rational thinking into a format that can operate in the same rapid timeline as instinct. And so our powers of intuition took the stage.

Intuition occurs automatically. And, like instinct, it is faster than thought. But the principle difference between intuition and instinct is that intuition is informed by reason – by means of a steady accumulation of information over a long time. For example, our ancient ancestors compiled memories of where to find food, the possible locations of predators, the migrations of prey, or the movements of opposing tribes. And after years of incorporating this data, we learned to “read” the landscape instantly and make split decisions on life-or-death matters.

For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, someone with finely-tuned intuition probably seemed almost like magic. It gave them the ability to respond to cues that were invisible to an untrained eye, recognizing and responding to threats before they appeared. For modern humans, intuition allows chess masters to visualize and anticipate moves from their opponents well in advance. It provides epiphanies to entrepreneurs seeking to design better products to solve difficult problems. It allows scientists to make groundbreaking discoveries based on a hunch or detailed mental images that appear seemingly out of the ether.

Intuition can be a superpower because so few humans attain this capacity in its peak form. 

We often talk of trusting our gut or following our heart, believing we’re tapping into some deep intuition. But unfortunately, more often than not, we’re led by our emotions and unconscious biases. Daniel Kahneman’s research on judgment and decision-making provides a myriad of examples of the many ways our biases trick us into thinking we know more than we do. 

How do we know when we’re tapping into true intuition rather than merely being fooled by our biases? One way is to ask yourself how much time and effort you’ve invested in profoundly understanding a topic. If you haven’t spent thousands of hours practicing and perfecting that subject or skill, there’s a good chance that what you think is intuition is more likely a delusion.

Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson shares an insight that helps clarify how rational analysis leads to high-level understanding. As he describes, we begin by compiling data. But data alone doesn’t mean all that much – we have to analyze the data to synthesize helpful information. Gather enough information, and you will attain knowledge of a given subject. But ultimately, even knowledge is meaningless unless you know what to do with it or how to use it – this is the attainment of wisdom. As you climb this scale, the level of detail decreases. Data can consist of millions of individual data points, while wisdom often involves very little detail. 

Wisdom is the distilled essence of data, information, and knowledge. Intuition, one might say, is wisdom in action. Intuition is like alchemy, transforming information into an unconscious “knowing.” It gives us a glimpse into how things work or flashes of understanding that transcend words.

Very few of us really attain this level of wisdom and intuition.

Part of the problem, which is no doubt exponentially worse in the modern world, is the quality of data and information we consume. As programmers like to say, “garbage in, garbage out.” If you write garbage code, you get garbage results. Likewise, if we feed our brains garbage info, our decision-making will be junk. Unfortunately, it’s not so easy to focus on quality information in the modern world. We’re bombarded with mental noise every day of our lives. As a result, many of us are stuck in a never-ending amygdala response, seeing threats around every corner and on every webpage. A steady diet of low-quality information in the form of sensationalist news, reality television programs, and mindless entertainment will fill our brains with a catalog of useless trivia. Instead of wisdom, we’re at the mercy of our biases and blind spots. We easily fall prey to media manipulation, groupthink, and narrow-minded thinking.

To cultivate advanced powers of reason and intuition, we must dedicate ourselves to filling our minds with quality information. To paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes, we must “seek the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” We will get results if we put in the hours, weeks, and years of committed practice on a specific topic. We must spend time turning ideas over in our heads, finding holes in our arguments, and seeking ways to refine constantly our understanding. 

Doing so enhances our capacity to survive and thrive. All three modes – instinct, reason, and intuition – play critical roles. Instinct keeps us alive when under threat – we need lightning-fast response time. Sometimes, fight, flight, or freeze are the proper responses. More often, though, in the kinds of work and situations we find ourselves in the modern world, we should rely on our powers of reason and rational thinking. Most of our decisions benefit from reflecting on data from the past and strategizing for future action. And then, if we have cultivated the power of intuition through persistent and systematic effort over time, we have another powerful tool for problem-solving at our disposal. Intuition can help us to see what others cannot, providing glimpses into unique and innovative solutions. 

On that note, I hope these ideas help you to gain insight and find a path to mastery for your unique skill and contribution. As the ancient Roman Stoic philosopher Epictetus said, “you become what you give your attention to.” Keep learning and keep growing. 

Join me again next time as I continue the series on decision-making with an exploration of some insights from psychology on mental heuristics and biases that guide — and sometimes cloud — our thinking. Until the next time, be well!

Recommended reading

Mastery by Robert Greene (especially Chapter VI, "Fuse the Intuitive with the Rational"

Podcast soundtrack credit:

Our Story Begins Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License