Intuition illustration by Lara Harwood
Illustration: Lara Harwood
You're faced with a difficult decision, and suddenly you feel the right answer in your gut. But while intuition may seem to arise from some mysterious inner source, it's actually a form of unconscious reasoning—one that's rooted in the way our brains collect and store information.

As you accumulate knowledge—whether it's about what books your spouse likes or how to play chess—you begin to recognize patterns. Your brain unconsciously organizes these patterns into blocks of information—a process the late social scientist Herbert Simon, PhD, called chunking. Over time your brain chunks and links more and more patterns, then stores these clusters of knowledge in your long-term memory. When you see a tiny detail of a familiar design, you instantly recognize the larger composition—and that's what we regard as a flash of intuition.

This elaborate brain circuitry likely evolved so our forebears could size up a person or a situation quickly. Our female ancestors, in particular, needed this skill: They had to tune in to their infants to enable them to survive. And this helps explain why women today have an edge when it comes to reading people. So listen to your gut feelings instead of brushing them aside. Your intuition may not always steer you right, but it can be a useful first step in decision-making.

Let your instincts guide you when...