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Reflection 6: Intuition, Incubation and Insight

In our last blog, we looked at cognitive biases and the effect these can have on our reflective capabilities and outputs.  In our blog No 4 on cognitive preferences we considered how cognitive preferences can both hinder and help the act of reflection.


In this penultimate blog in the series of reflection, we would like to stay with cognition and consider the concept of intuition and its role in helping to deepen our ability to reflect effectively.

Intuition was the subject of my PhD research and as is usual for any research study, defining the concept was key to understanding it and placing it in a relevant context, which for me happened to be ‘Management Problem-Solving’.  Intuition is often referred to as the antithesis to logic; a way of knowing that cannot be articulated and for some people intuition has spiritual or magical connotations.  During my research study, intuition had a rough time, in the world of management and business it lacked credibility and it was associated with lazy thinking, i.e. if you cannot show the evidence for how you reached that conclusion then the result had to be discounted.  This last sentence brings back memories of school maths and science lessons and yet some great discoveries are often credited to having a ‘hunch’ or ‘gut feeling’ and then having the courage and tenacity to act on that intuition with a more rational, scientific approach to validate or nullify the intuition.  In fact, a hypothesis is really an untested intuition.


Coming back to the role of intuition in the reflective process, we suggest that one of the purposes of being able to reflect effectively is to achieve some form of learning that is based on insight gained from analyzing an experience or situation.  However, in order to go from having an intuition to gaining some form of insight, time is needed.  This time lag is often referred to as ‘Incubation’; often referred to taking time to ‘sleep on it’.  You may well have experienced a situation where you have been pondering on or struggling with an issue and decided to put it to one side and tackle it again later, possibly even the next day, after literally having sleep.  When you wake in the morning you know what you need to do, the resolution or solution has come to you.  Incubation is when the unconscious mind gets to work and brings into consciousness the possible solution.


The reflective process allows us to slow down all these cognitive aspects:


Intuition – Become sensitive and aware of your intuitions, recognize and accept them as data.

Incubation – Give time to your thinking process.  Divert your conscious mind with other activities in order to give your unconscious mind time to process all that data.

Insight – If your insights are really forms of new learning, then be courageous and act on those insights by applying your learning within different contexts and opportunities.


Finally, like many areas of life, we advocate that that our thinking process and therefore, our reflective process should be balanced.  Balance logic with intuition; analysis of objective data with acceptance of emotions as data.  We should always be suspicious of people who advocate doing or focusing on something at the expense of something else (dietary fads are a good example of this).  Here is a Ted talk given Liv Boeree about intuition, decision-making and poker playing.




The message is that we should not give intuition too many privileges but we should acknowledge it has a role to play and in our context of reflecting, we definitely support its role and validity.