The Psychology and Philosophy of Intuition

At a wine bar in Corsica, I ordered a glass and shared some low-key wine talk with the chap who brought it to me. After some time, I ordered another glass, and we spoke again. I like testing my intuitions, so I said, at point blank, “You’ve written poetry, haven’t you?” The chap turned out to be a published poet.

‘Intuition’ derives from the Latin tuere, ‘to look at, watch over’, and is related to ‘tutor and ‘tuition’ and perhaps also to the Sanskrit tavas, ‘strong, powerful’. Broadly speaking, an intuition is a disposition to believe evolved without hard evidence or conscious deliberation. I say ‘disposition to believe’ rather than ‘belief’ because an intuition is usually held with less certainty or firmness than a belief; and ‘believe’ rather than ‘know’ because an intuition is not justified in the normal sense, and not necessarily true or accurate.

Intuition is often confused with instinct. Instinct is not a feeling about something, but a tendency towards a particular behavior that is innate and common to the species. “Karen stepped back, intuiting that the dog would follow its instinct and bite.” Although instincts tend to be associated with animals, human beings also have quite a few, even if they are, or can be, strongly modified by culture, temperament, and experience. Examples of human instincts include any number of phobias, territoriality, tribal loyalty, and the urge to procreate and rear their young. These instincts are often disguised or sublimed, for example, tribal loyalty may find an outlet in sport, and the urge to procreate may take the more rarefied form of love. Aristotle says in the Rhetoric that human beings have an instinct for truth, and in the Poetics that they have an instinct for rhythm and harmony.

If intuition is not instinct, how does it operate? An intuition involves a coming together of facts, concepts, experiences, thoughts, and feelings that are loosely linked but too profuse, disparate, and peripheral for deliberate or rational processing. As this process is sub- or semi-conscious and the workings are hidden, an intuition appears suddenly and unexpectedly, and cannot, or at least not immediately or easily, be justified. But what makes an intuition especially hard to support is that it is founded not so much on arguments and evidence as on the interconnectedness of things. It hangs, delicately and invisibly, like the web of a spider. The surfacing of an intuition, which can also occur in dream or meditation, is usually associated with a concordant feeling such as joy or dread, or simple pleasure at the high cognitive and human achievement that an intuition represents.

If this is how intuition works, then we can encourage intuition by expanding the number and range of our experiences, and by tearing down the psychological barriers, such as fears and taboos, that are preventing them from coalescing. We should also give ourselves more time and space for free association: my own intuitive faculty is sharpest when showering, traveling, or dreaming, and when I am well rested. Finally, it would help if we actually believed in our ability to form intuitions. We have micro-intuitions all the time, about what to eat for breakfast, what to wear, what road to take, whom to talk to, what to say, how to respond, and so on. I call them micro-intuitions because they depend on a large number of subtle variables, and escape, or largely escape, conscious processing. But what about the macro-intuitions? Never in the history of humanity has the intuitive faculty been more neglected or devalued than in our rational-scientific age.

As a writer, some of what I consider to be my best lines are intuitions, and work by prompting similar open-ended associations in the reader (you can read some of them on my website).

Similarly, in Zen practice, a kōan is a paradox or riddle that encourages the apprentice to connect the dots by subverting the rational and egotistic mind.

One day, a monk said to Joshu, “Master, I have just entered the monastery. Please give me instructions.”

Joshu replied, “Have you had your breakfast?”

“Yes, I have.”

“Then wash your bowls.”

The monk understood something.

Before reading on, try to work it out for yourself. You will have to shift gears, or pass into neutral.

The monk may have understood that life is to be found in all of life; that life, at all times, is right in front of us, simply waiting to be lived. Suddenly it seems so obvious, but it’s not something that the rational, task-driven mind either grasps or remembers.

Socrates is often held up as a paradigm of reason and philosophy. Yet, he seldom claimed any real knowledge. All he had, he said, was a daimonion or ‘divine something’, an inner voice or sense that prevented him from making grave mistakes such as getting involved in politics or escaping Athens. “This is the voice which I seem to hear murmuring in my ears, like the sound of the flute in the ears of the mystic.” In the Phaedrus, he goes so far as to say:

Madness, provided it comes as the gift of heaven, is the channel by which we receive the greatest blessings… the men of old who gave things their names saw no disgrace or reproach in madness; otherwise they would not have connected it with the name of the noblest of arts, the art of discerning the future, and called it the manic art… So according to the evidence provided by our ancestors, madness is a nobler thing than sober sense… madness comes from God, whereas sober sense is merely human.

In the Meno, which features Meno in conversation with Socrates, Plato explores the nature of intuition. At one point, Meno confesses that he is unable to define virtue, even though he has delivered many speeches on the subject. He compares Socrates to the flat torpedo fish, which torpifies or numbs all those who come near it. “And I think that you are very wise in not leaving Athens, for if you did in other places as you do here, you would be cast into prison as a magician.” Socrates, the paradigm of reason and philosophy, is the very embodiment of a kōan.

Meno asks Socrates how he will look for virtue if he does not know what it is.

And how will you enquire, Socrates, into that which you do not know? What will you put forth as the subject of enquiry? And if you find what you want, how will you ever know that this is the thing which you did not know?

Socrates says that he has heard from certain wise men and women ‘who spoke of things divine’ that the soul is immortal, has been born often, and has seen all things on earth and below. Since the soul already knows everything, ‘learning’ consists merely in recollecting that which is already known. Socrates traces a square in the dirt and asks one of Meno’s slave boys a series of questions that lead the uneducated boy, effectively, to derive Pythagoras’ theorem. Socrates claims to have proven that the boy found this knowledge not through teaching, but through recollection.

Reason is not the only road to knowledge. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that the types of disposition (hexis) by which the soul can arrive at truth are five in number: (1) scientific knowledge (episteme), which arrives at necessary and eternal truths by deduction and induction; (2) art or technical skills (techne), which is a rational capacity to make; (3) practical wisdom (phronesis), which is a rational capacity to secure the good life, and includes the political art; (4) intuition (nous), which apprehends the first principles or unarticulated truths from which scientific knowledge is derived; and (5) philosophic wisdom (sophia), which is scientific knowledge combined with intuition of the things that are highest by nature.

What is interesting in Aristotle’s schema is that scientific knowledge (and reason more broadly) is not independent of intuition. Rather, it is intuition that makes scientific knowledge possible. Centuries later, Locke made a similar point in contrasting intuition and demonstration: demonstration requires conscious steps, but each step is or should be intuitive. At the very least, intuition underpins the reasoning process, since fundamental axioms and elementary rules of inference cannot be established by any other means—and, of course, the same is also true of our fundamental moral beliefs, of ‘practical wisdom’. Today, there is a summit in Antarctica called ‘Intuition Peak’ in honor of the role of intuition in the advancement of human knowledge.

But one important caveat to climb down from this high point. If you put a right-wing person in a room with a left-wing person, or a religious one with a non-religious one, you will soon find that their intuitions conflict.

Intuition can and should be used to form hypotheses, but never to justify claims.


The Wines of Corsica



One of the 18 regions of France, the island of Corsica lies to the south-east of mainland France, off the coast of Tuscany and just north of Sardinia. From early antiquity, Greek colonists cultivated the vine in Corsica. In the 13th century, control of the island passed from Pisa to Genoa, and then, from 1768, to France. The following year, an Italian noblewoman Maria Letizia Buonaparte gave birth to a boy, Napoleon, in Ajaccio—now the island’s capital. In the wake of the Algerian War (1954-1962) many pied-noirs resettled in Corsica, contributing to a four-fold increase in vineyard area. In recent decades, initiatives by the European Union have led to a refocussing on quality wine production, with vineyard area falling back to ~7,000ha. This being fairly limited, Corsican wines do not come cheap. But progress in recent years has been phenomenal, and the best examples are worth the outlay.

Corsica is very mountainous, and vineyards tend to be planted nearer the coast. The climate is Mediterranean, with hot, dry summers and short, mild winters, although the shifting landscape allows for a range of mesoclimates. The sea moderates temperatures, while the mountains can significantly increase diurnal temperature range. The main threat to the harvest comes from heat and drought. Most of the island is granitic, but the Cap Corse peninsula in the far north is rich in schist, Patrimonio just south of Cap Corse is rich in limestone clay, and Bonifacio in the far south is rich in chalky limestone.

The catch-all Ile de Beauté IGP accounts for more than half of the island’s production. The generic Vin de Corse AOP also covers the entire island. Subject to stricter rules, five areas can append their names to the Vin de Corse AOP: Coteaux du Cap Corse, Calvi, Sartène, Figari, and Porto Vecchio. Patrimonio and Ajaccio have their own AOPs. Finally, there is an AOP for Muscat du Cap Corse, a vin doux naturel made from Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains. Production of Muscat du Cap Corse is small, but the wine can impress, with notes of rose petal, orange blossom, litchi, and honey, high but balanced acidity and smoky minerality. Rarer still from Cap Corse is Rappu, a red vin doux naturel made from the Aleatico grape, which is also behind Elba Aleatico Passito DOCG.

A Pieretti vineyard on Cap Corse

About half of Corsican wine is rosé, a third red, and the remainder white, although, compared to the cooperatives, leading producers tend to make proportionally less rosé. One producer sought to justify his rosé production by saying, “A Ferrari is not much good without petrol.” By far the most important grape varieties are Nielluccio (Sangiovese) and Sciacarello (Mammolo) for reds and rosés, and Vermentino (Rolle) for whites. Reds and rosés made under Vin de Corse AOP must include at least 50% Nielluccio, Sciacarello, and Grenache. Patrimonio reds and rosés are heavily dominated by Nielluccio, which does best on calcareous soils. Sciacarello on the other hand does best on granitic soils, and is the leading variety in Ajaccio and the south. Producers are enthusiastic about local varieties, including rarer varieties such as Bianco Gentile, Aleatico, Morescola, Morescono, Montanaccia, Carcajolo Nero… One producer I visited had been grafting Vermentino onto 50-year-old Grenache because “we don’t want to drown in the Rhône”. Nielluccio is bold and structured with notes of black fruit, tomato leaf, and maquis herbs. It is often blended with Sciacarello, which is lighter, with notes of red fruits, almonds, and coffee or pepper. Corsican whites are often 100% Vermentino. They are typically pale in colour, with notes of grapefruit, peach, almond, flowers, fennel, and anise, with balanced acidity and a bitter finish. Depending on terroir, they can be either rich or mineral. The unblended Bianco Gentile from Yves Leccia in Patrimonio is fresh yet mouthfilling, with notes of lemon, beeswax, chamomile, popcorn, and smoke.

Some favourite producers in Corsica include Pieretti and Clos Nicrosi in Cap Corse, Domaine Arena and Yves Leccia in Patrimonio, and, further south, Jean-Charles Abbatucci, Yves Canarelli, Clos Culombu (try the Storia di cuvées), and Domaine Vaccelli (try the Granit cuvées). Abbatucci and Canarelli are leading the revival of rarer varieties and, in the case of Canarelli, the limestone terroir of Bonifacio. At the time of writing, there are about 150 independent producers in Corsica, but just five in Cap Corse and three in Bonifacio, highlighting the unrealized potential of this serene island.

The Magic of Music

The oldest musical instruments to have been found, flutes made from bird bone and mammoth ivory, are more than 42,000 years old; and it has been argued that, by fostering social cohesion, music—from the Greek, ‘the art of the muses’— could have helped our species outcompete the Neanderthals. Remember that next time you stand to the national anthem.

In the Bible, David played on his harp to make King Saul feel better: ‘And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took an harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him’ (1 Samuel 16:23 KJV).

The oral works ascribed to Homer would not have survived if they had not been set to music and sung. By his song, the lyric poet Thaletas brought civic harmony to Sparta, and is even credited with ending the plague in that city. The Pythagoreans recited poetry, sang hymns to Apollo (the god of music), and played on the lyre to cure illnesses of body and soul. In the Republic, Plato says that the education of the guardians should consist of gymnastic for the body and music for the soul, and that, once set, the curriculum should not be changed: ‘…when modes of music change, of the State always change with them.’ Aristotle concludes the Politics with, of all things, a discussion of music:

Since then music is a pleasure, and virtue consists in rejoicing and loving and hating aright, there is clearly nothing which we are so much concerned to acquire and to cultivate as the power of forming right judgments, and of taking delight in good dispositions and noble actions. Rhythm and melody supply imitations of anger and gentleness, and also of courage and temperance, and of all the qualities contrary to these, and of the other qualities of character, which hardly fall short of the actual affections…

In the 10th century, the Islamic thinker Al-Farabi wrote a treatise, Meanings of the Intellect, in which he discussed music therapy. Modern music therapy took form in the aftermath of World War II, when staff in veteran hospitals noticed that music could benefit their patients in ways that standard treatments could not, and started hiring musicians. In 1959, American composer and pianist Paul Nordoff and British special education teacher Clive Robbins developed a form of collaborative music-making to engage vulnerable and isolated children, helping them to develop in the cognitive, behavioural, and social domains. Today, Nordoff Robbins is the largest music therapy charity in the U.K.

Modern music therapy aims, by the use of music, to improve health or functional outcomes. It typically involves regular meetings with a qualified music therapist and various combinations of music-related activities. In ‘active therapy’ the individual and therapist make music using an instrument or the voice; in ‘passive therapy’ the individual listens to music in a reflective mode. You don’t have to be musical to take part. And, of course, you don’t have to take part to engage with music.

Does music therapy work? And if so, how? There is mounting evidence that music boosts levels of dopamine, a feel-good chemical messenger in the brain. Dopamine is linked to motivation and reward, and released in response to activities such eating and making love. Many people use music to power through a workout. Beyond distracting from discomfort, music triggers the release of opioid hormones that relieve physical and psychological pain. Forget the workout, just dance to the music. Dancing is the best exercise because it involves movement in all directions and engages the mind on multiple levels. Music also boosts the immune system, notably by increasing antibodies and decreasing stress hormones, which can depress the immune system. Techno and heavy metal aside, music lowers heart rate and blood pressure, and even reduces recovery time following a heart episode or surgery.

From the psychological perspective, music therapy alleviates symptoms of anxiety and depression and improves social and occupational functioning. Aside from the biological benefits such as increased dopamine and decreased stress hormones, music can help us to recognize, express, and process complex or painful emotions. It elevates these emotions and gives them a sense of beauty and meaning. We hear a human voice and feel understood. As Taylor Swift put it, “People haven’t always been there for me but music always has.”

I don’t think that music has to sound uplifting to be uplifting, so long as it helps us to work with our feelings. In the Poetics, Aristotle compared the purifying or cleansing effects of tragedy on the mind of the spectator to the effect of a cathartic on the body, and called this purging of the emotions catharsis.

The benefit of music extends beyond depression and anxiety to psychosis, autism, and dementia. In dementia, music can help with cognitive deficits, agitation, and social functioning. It helps to encode memories, and can in turn evoke vivid memories. In acquired brain injury, it can assist with the recovery of motor skills, and, through song, lend a voice to people who have lost the faculty of speech. At the other end of life, music played during pregnancy has been linked, in the newborn, to better motor and cognitive skills, faster development of language, and so on.

I remember as a teenager, lying in the blackness of the night and listening to Beethoven on my portable CD player. It completely transformed the makeup of my mind.

10 songs for the blues

  1. The Verve, Bittersweet Symphony
  2. Soul Asylum, Runaway Train
  3. Disturbed, The Sound of Silence
  4. Abba, Chiquitita 
  5. Rolling Stones, Paint it Black
  6. Royksopp, I Had This Thing
  7. Eurythmics, Here Comes the Rain Again
  8. Beethoven, Violin Concerto
  9. Bruce Springsteen, Human Touch
  10. The Verve, Lucky Man

If a song has been helpful to you, please share it in the comments section.

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