Impulse, instinct, intuition…

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How do we make decisions?

Impulse, instinct and intuition, I became curious about how these three words seemed to fundamentally describe important, but different, processes that were going on when we are making decisions. So I spent some time observing and defining what I saw as the difference between these three concepts.

Here’s what I have come up with so far.

As humans we have impulses; they are that fleeting suggestion, that idea, that possibility that comes into focus at any given moment. It could be at a critical moment of choice, but equally it could be when we are just sitting around staring out the window. Our system suggests an option to us and we can decide whether we want to take it or not. So…

An impulse is a suggestion from our subconscious that we can choose to follow, or not.

Where do these suggestions come from? Why do we get a particular impulse at a particular moment? I think there are two systems that these impulses draw from, our instinct and our intuition.

Different fields of research have different ways of defining the word instinct. I have attempted to find a way to define it the word in a way that reflects the day-to-day experience and use of the word that I have observed.

Our instinct is a behavioral urge that is hard wired into our system.

The instinct to breathe, to feed ourselves, to find shelter, to respond to danger; all of these things we will do because we have built a knowledge over thousands of years about what we need to do to survive. Some instincts we have no choice about, in essence the choices around the impulse are bypassed because our systems take over and respond (these are generally referred to as reflexes and others exclude these from the category of instinct, for our purposes I include them). For example if something comes toward our face we will blink to protect our eyes (touch a babies nose and watch this happen), and this is a very good thing.

Some other instincts we can have a little more control over. There is more time between the situation, our impulse to respond and the response happening. When I get hungry (my instinct for nourishment) I can get very grumpy and have a very strong impulse to eat (just about anything). However I don’t generally put something in my mouth just because it’s there, I can talk myself through what’s happening (right, I’m not really angry, I’m just hungry. I’m ten minutes from food and very unlikely to starve in that time frame…). So in this case I have an impulse to eat (based on my instinct for food) but I also have some choice about how I respond to that impulse.

However there is another group of suggestions (or impulses) that we respond to every day. These impulses are based on our intuition.

Our intuition is a behavioral urge that is informed by our life experiences.

Intuition is the subconscious system of decision making that feeds the impulses we have that are not instinct based (eg: biologically hard wired for our survival). These are life skills we need day to day (like using public transport) or a specialist skill we have accumulated as a result of focused and deliberate effort (like playing the piano or facilitating a group).

I believe impulses based on our intuition are an important part of our decision making process as a human. In this situation the impulse is a suggestion from our sub-conscious based on the situation we find ourselves in, the goal we have set for ourselves and our accumulated experience (knowledge) in similar situations.

Intuition based impulses are the result of a complex relationship between the circumstances we are in and the history of experiences we have had. It is a process that allows an interaction between what is conscious to us and what is sub-conscious to us. I believe it is our sub-conscious sending us a suggestion based on the things we have learnt in the past about a given situation that we are in.

So if…

An impulse is a suggestion from our subconscious that we can choose to follow, or not.
Our instinct is a behavioral urge that is hard wired into our system.
Our intuition is a behavioral urge that is informed by our life experiences.

…then how do we make decisions?

My theory is that we have impulses that are stimulated from either our instinct or from our intuition. When it comes to impulses we either have no choice because our system just follows the impulse (like the instinct to blink when our nose is touched) or we have a choice (to wait till we find some food rather than eat whatever is around us or to respond to a particular impulse we have when facilitating a group or to ignore it and try something else). And that what is important is that we cultivate our ability to listen to the impulses we have and then practice following them or making a choice to over ride them based on a new piece of knowledge we have.

All of this is a way of saying that as humans we have more choices than we often think we do and that we will benefit from cultivating the ability to observe the impulses we have and make choices about what we do in response to those impulses.

Artist, advisor, coach.
I find the real problem, make the difficult easy
and tell a great story.

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