Intuition is a short circuit in the brain

A hunch, a quick idea, an urgent decision… We all know that feeling of intuition, or at least… we think we know it! Because intuition is really real? “It’s always been the subject of speculation. It was almost seen as a magical thing.”says Philip Chassy, ​​professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Liverpool. So it can only be a lie invented by ourselves, a simple and exaggerated coincidence …

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Except that it doesn’t: intuition actually exists, and its neural mechanisms have been proven thanks to brain imaging techniques. So much so that we now know how to fire in our brain! “This psychological phenomenon has a very simple explanation: it is the result of the automatic work of our memory”, enlightens Philip Chassy. Studies of chess players have shown that beginners think using their short-term memory – the conscious workspace. But experts, they, muster their long-term memory, the area in which the positions of the pieces on the chessboard, as well as their combinations, are stored. In particular, the medial temporal part, where the fusiform gyrus is located, is the area normally dedicated to recognizing faces, as a German study showed in 2011. This is the same area that is activated when radiologists examine X-ray images, or ornithologists. who watch birds.

However, it is difficult to identify a single path of intuition. “There are several areas involved, because unconscious information can be stored in any area of ​​the brain. Depending on whether you play football, climb a mountain or driveScientific research, the same areas will not activate when we have a hunch.” , notes Joel Pearson, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Australian University of New South Wales.

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>> Read also: Can we really follow our intuition?

group trips

Thus, in players of shogi, a Japanese strategy game, other brain regions involved in the intuitive process are identified and allow one of their potential cognitive pathways to be mapped.

In 2011, Keiji Tanaka’s team of neuroscientists from the Riken Brain Science Institute (Japan) placed both amateur and professional players under functional magnetic resonance imaging. The participants first had to look at different pictures: shogi and chess boards, as well as pictures of faces and houses. However, in professional players, shogi scenes activated a specific area of ​​their parietal cortex, which is free, dedicated to recognizing objects in our environment, and their organization into a coherent visual scene. This would make it possible to identify specific causes, such as the order of the game pieces, a weak defense or an imminent attack. And the journey of intuition is not over yet… In a second try, players had to play the best move to catch the king, either in Intuitive Mode, in just one second, or in Analytical Mode, in eight seconds. The result: Relying on intuition, professional players activated a small area called the caudate nucleus, which plays an important role in performing automatic behaviors. In analytic mode, on the other hand, this area remained silent, and neuronal activity remained confined to the cerebral cortex, a less primitive structure dedicated to thinking.

“What is a bit surprising, if their theory is correct, is because eight seconds to solve a problem, in the end, is very short”Fernand Gobet, Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science points out.

>> Read also: These scientific discoveries we owe to intuition

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Alpha and gamma waves

For authors, the caudate can be the center of our highly specialized knowledge, and allow us to come up with a solution without even thinking about it. This hypothesis was reinforced in 2012, when this time they recruited beginners to train them for a hundred days in playing shogi. The better the participants, the stronger the signal from their caudate nuclei. The researchers say the evidence stems from learning and experience. At this point, studies converge.

“When you become an expert, the brain realigns the processing of information for our field of activity. The eye will search for specific patterns. Once the neurons of visual recognition are activated, they recall in memory all the characteristics of the mentioned patterns, which arehundreds of thousands to be stored” Decoding Philip Chase. Then the solution appears almost unconsciously. “A kind of default, the shortcut, put into place thanks to experience, which avoids having to consciously follow all the steps one might take to solve a problem”, suggests Axel Klermans, professor of cognitive psychology at the Free University of Brussels.

“Player” Matt Hag’s brain activity measured by an electroencephalogram, in Santa Monica, California, in 2014.

Intuition is a short circuit in the brain

A flash of genius produces a wave of gamma waves (in red, the curve of intuition; in blue, the reflection of light).

For its part, conscious thinking, which requires great efforts to concentrate, occurs above all in the prefrontal cortex: this is what is bypassed during intuition. This phenomenon can also be read in our brain waves. Easily identify objects or shapes in milliseconds It is associated with peak alpha waves, which range in frequency from 8 to 12 Hz, while working memory use is associated with theta waves, which range from 4 to 7 Hz.Explains Clément Cornier, a doctoral student in sports psychology at the University of Reims. Our flashes of genius, another form of intuition, correlate with the crest of gamma waves in the superior temporal gyrus, a few milliseconds before a resolution forms, as shown in 2004 by John Kunios, a neuroscientist at Drexel University. (see curve above). All that remains is to figure out how to trigger that, this short circuit of logical and conscious thinking, this mindless idea…

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>> Read also: Intuition stems from experience

way of intuition

The prefrontal cortex is bypassed

Conscious thinking relies on working memory, which relies on the prefrontal cortex. Intuitively, a shortcut to long-term memory replaces these expensive mental processes.

1. The eye searches for patterns…

Faced with a game situation, a professional shogi player will recognize, at a glance, “patterns” specific to his or her field of expertise, such as the arrangement of the pieces on the board.

2. …recognized by precuneus …

These “patterns” are transferred from the visual cortex to the foreground, which you will recognize and organize into a coherent visual scene: enough to identify a weak defense or an imminent attack.

3. …that lead to the appearance of the solution in the nucleus of the tail

The information then travels to the caudate nucleus where the next best step is shown to play intuitively, by comparing identified “patterns” with the hundreds of thousands stored in memory through practice.

Intuition is a short circuit in the brain

© M.SAEMANN – M.ALMEIDA / NYT-REDUX-REA

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