What is a “felt sense”? This is something that happens really fast, in a blink, below the radar of awareness. Something that’s in the same general category as a hunch, an intuition, a gut feeling.
John Le Carre describes such a thing in his novel, A delicate truth (Viking, 2013, p. 156):
…until at some point in the interminable dawn he discovers that an unconscious mental process has delivered him a seemingly spontaneous decision.
Here is a down-to-earth example, one that is grounded in the realities of making money — vast amounts of it, in fact: George Soros made billions of dollars through his ability to anticipate the fluctuations of the world’s financial markets and to invest accordingly. It would be interesting to understand what it is that has been giving him his edge, wouldn’t it?
Chances are, if you ask George Soros why he did what he did on any given transaction, he will give you some logical-sounding explanations, and these explanations will probably make sense to you. However, you get a totally different sense of the situation if you listen to his son describe how things happened: “My father will sit down and give you theories to explain why he does this or that. But I remember seeing it as a kid and thinking, At least half of this is bull. I mean, you know the reason he changes his position on the market or whatever is because his back starts killing him. He literally goes into a spasm, and it’s this early warning sign.” (as reported by Malcolm Gladwell in “Blink”).
Does this mean that George Soros is lying when he describes his decision-making
in intellectual terms? Or that his son was too stupid to understand this high-level financial thinking, was observing unrelated events, and mistook the coincidence for causality? I wasn’t there, I didn’t observe the scene, and I can’t know what actually happened in George Soros’ mind when he made his decisions. But, based on what I know about how our minds work, I believe it is very likely that the intuition came first — the sense of what felt right for him to do — before he was able to articulate in an intellectually coherent way why it was right.
Why do I say that? Isn’t logical thinking of a higher order than emotions and hunches? Logical thinking is indeed what happens in the more advanced part of our brain, the neocortex, whose development sets us apart from other mammals. But what happens in this most rarefied sphere of our brain is actually heavily influenced by the processes that occur in more primitive parts of the brain, the ones that process emotions. At the risk of oversimplifying, I could describe the process as follows: the relatively primitive part of our brain gets a very quick “sense” of the situation, and the outcome is what we’d call a “gut reaction”, one that is emotional rather than intellectual. This “sense” of the situation provides a large part of the underpinnings of what the cognitive brain then processes and articulates as thinking. In other words, our rational decisions rest on a base of “gut feelings”, even when they appear to us to be entirely the province of pure logical thinking.
The gut feeling is faster, more direct, more comprehensive. It gives us a broad “sense” of the situation as a whole. For instance, when basketball players are in the heat of the game, they don’t have to stop and analyze what’s happening around them in order to decide what to do next. They rely on their “court sense” — the ability to be aware of all that goes on around them, and to process it unconsciously, much, much faster than if they were to consciously analyze it.
So I find it quite believable that George Soros, being a super athlete of the financial world, would have developed a “court sense” of the financial markets, and that this “court sense” is at the base of his decisions. I also find it understandable that this “court sense” leads him to take actions that make logical sense and can be explained in coherent way, just as a basketball player’s moves on the field can then be described as the right reaction to the circumstances the player was in.
This observation is at odds with the attitude that only conscious cognitive processes are “right” whereas unconscious processes are arbitrary. In fact, in these examples, it is the unconscious processes that provide an accurate, actionable basis for dealing with the reality, whereas the conscious processes are lagging behind, merely describing in intelligent terms the result of a mostly unconscious decision.
Am I then saying that the key to making the right decision is to follow your hunches? You read this, and you take your lifetime savings to invest in whatever scheme “feels right” to you at the moment. You lose all your money, and turn back to me: “It’s your fault! You said I had to follow my hunches!”
Well… What makes George Soros’ hunches better than yours is the same thing that makes the professional basketball player’s hunches better than yours: These are hunches that have been perfected through an intense learning process, one that involves not just an intellectual understanding of what to do, but a deep body senses of what to do, so that it becomes second nature.
If you’ve seen the old Star Wars movies, you may recall the way Yoda was training young Luke Skywalker to use the “force”. What the movie describes as a mystical force capable of producing out-of-the-ordinary results is a good metaphor for the Zen training of martial arts. It’s] not just about perfecting techniques and skills, it is about blending these with an ever increasing reliance on intuition. The techniques are so deeply assimilated that they are executed in a state of “not
thinking”, i.e. the opposite of self-conscious actions. The fighter feels a sense of flow, feels attuned to the situation, and is responding to it in an organic and harmonious way. No mind: Certainly not the slower, clumsy, cumbersome analytical processes of the cognitive mind that would only slow down the action!
Most of us are more prepared to accept the superiority of the kind of “no mind” approach in martial arts than in more intellectual pursuits. After all, fighting is pretty close to our animal roots: Animals don’t use their intellects to fight, and they fight quite well. But most of us have trouble accepting that this kind of approach would be effective in more complex pursuits.
This is why the example of George Soros is very interesting to consider. Predicting the reactions of the world’s financial markets is a very complex task. It is the province of high IQ, highly educated people. George Soros himself is no dummy. The argument I am making is not that dumb hunches trump intellectual
capacity. What I am saying is that developing his ability to feel hunches and to trust them has given George Soros added power. To keep with the Star Wars metaphor, it enables him to do the kind of “jump into hyperspace” that enables a starship to leave others in the cosmic dust.
I now come back to the specifics of the quote about George Soros process: it alludes to his back pains. This is a beautiful illustration of what hunches are: Not just ideas as we traditionally know them — thoughts, concepts, words — but a more inarticulate sense of what the situation feels like, often literally “body sense” of the situation.
Once again, I am not advocating that you invest your lifetime savings based on your next “body sense” of what the market will do. Remember the Star Wars metaphor, the training of Luke Skywalker: He may have been gifted from the beginning, but learning to use the “force” adequately was a lengthy process. In
fact, one of the admonitions of Yoda was that he would be at the greatest risk of failing if he chose to rely on the force too soon, before he had mastered it. In practical terms, this means that just following your intuition will not make you a great investor, any more than it will make you a great karate fighter.
But learning to blend your practical and intellectual skills with your gut feelings will help you get into an altogether different level of effectiveness. Perfecting your intuitive thinking involves recognizing your hunches. Over time, you get to “calibrate” the information they give you based on reality feedback. So the information provided by these hunches becomes more and more reliable, more and more trustworthy.
Practicing this skill and improving it through “reality testing” makes it increasingly useful to approach complex situations in a highly efficient manner – – whereas just relying on your cognitive processes would have you deal with these situations in a plodding manner.