Suddenly at midlife, the gut instinct I had long relied on to make important life decisions left me. Here’s how I learned to get it back.
Earlier this year, I wondered if my husband and I were going to separate. We’d been having ups and downs for a few years, but in the weeks right before our 10th anniversary, I found myself trapped in a cycle of personal conflict around splitting up, a kind of “will they or won’t they?” — like some romantic comedy, but in reverse.
One minute, my gut instinct was telling me that we needed to separate, and that being on my own was what I truly wanted. Twenty minutes later, it shouted at me that separating was a terrible idea and not what I wanted at all.
For weeks, this went on — my intuition canceling itself out over and over again. It reached a pitch one afternoon, when I told my husband I wanted to separate and then immediately regretted it. Before dinner, I found myself completely undone, sobbing on the bathroom floor as he browned taco meat in the kitchen.
In short, I felt like I couldn’t trust myself. It was as if something had hijacked my gut instinct, or intuition — the feeling of Yes, this is right! that bubbles up, seemingly from nowhere, and that I had long relied on to make important life decisions.
Those bubbles of clear and immediate truth were my driving force when I was younger. Sophomore year of college, I was walking to class one afternoon when it hit me that I should change my major from elementary education to English. It turned out to be the first step in my writing career.
When I got laid off twice in six months from marketing jobs in my late 20s, the answer came to me during a run: Be a freelance writer! That was 16 years ago and the best decision of my career.
When my husband (then boyfriend) and I walked into a tiny-but-charming 1940s Cape Cod, I knew at the front door that it was right. That was 11 years ago, and though I do not love the tiny bathrooms, I am still in love with this house.
Not long after, we had a conversation over brunch about how much he disliked his job and what our future plans might be, when I blurted out: “If we have kids, you can quit your job and be a stay-at-home dad if you want!” I didn’t make a spreadsheet to determine if I could support us, I just knew I could, and I have.
It seemed as if my intuition was good to me in my 20s and 30s. And then something happened in my 40s: I stopped being able to trust it. What was going on?
The value of intuition has long been touted by life coaches and chief executives who write leadership books. Fortunately for me, intuition is also of interest to psychologists and neuroscientists. A review study out of Leeds University Business School a few years back looked at the different ways scientists have tried to measure intuition, which the authors define as information that comes to us with “no apparent intrusion of deliberate, rational thought.” The authors pointed out that the major drawback in trying to get to the heart of intuition and how people use it is that most measures are self-reported, and thus, not necessarily reliable. However, the study was a first step in legitimizing intuition as a real thing that needs better methods for studying.
Joel Pearson, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, has found a novel way to measure how we use intuition in decision-making — one that doesn’t rely solely on questionnaires or self reports. Recently, his lab published a study about a series of experiments where study subjects — college students — were sometimes presented with subliminal, emotion-laden images while they completed a basic decision-making task: looking at a computer screen and quickly deciding if a series of dots was moving left or moving right by pressing a left or right arrow on the keyboard. The images were emotionally charged, like a baby, puppy, gun or snake, and flashed so quickly that students couldn’t consciously perceive them. But their unconscious minds picked them up.
The students were more accurate with the dots task when the emotional images flashed before them. They also improved as they worked with the task and reported feeling more confident in their decision-making when they were exposed to the subliminal images, which in effect mimicked intuition. Because if you break intuition down to its key components, it basically consists of unconscious, emotional information, both positive and negative.
“What people refer to as intuition: We use it every day to describe a certain feeling, but we didn’t know for sure it existed,” Dr. Pearson said. “With our work, we have shown strong evidence that unconscious feelings and emotions can combine with conscious feelings, and we can use it to make better decisions.”
So why was I having so much trouble relying on intuition now? Was it getting “rusty” with age, along with my memory, eyesight and joint mobility?
There doesn’t seem to be any evidence for that. But there is evidence suggesting that depression or anxiety can compromise intuition, and that depressed or anxious people struggle with intuitive decision-making.
In one experiment, researchers had people who were not depressed and depressed people study different groups of words, some of which were related to each other. “Healthy people were able to quickly distinguish the related words, even without knowing why,” said Carina Remmers, the lead author and a clinical psychologist at the Free University of Berlin. “Depressed people had difficulties doing this, and trusting their decisions.”
However, when the researchers repeated the task, this time substituting images instead of words, depressed people didn’t have the same struggle. “We think the difference with semantics versus visual is related to the rumination people do when they’re depressed: You try to solve problems, but you just think in circles.” In other words, you can’t trust the language of your own brain.
She noted that in her work as a clinical psychologist, she helps people who are caught up in conflicting motivations. When you are a child, your motivations tend to be more straightforward, she explained. You like candy, and you don’t like social studies. Period.
But as you get older, you start developing conflicting motivations. “For example, you want to be free, but you want to be in a partnership; you want control, but you want to be taken care of,” she said. “You may have a specific phase in life where you cannot balance out the conflicts so well anymore, and things get stuck.” It’s hard to trust your gut when you feel stuck. Her approach is to help people get back in touch with their real selves, so they can regain access to the unconscious.
Dr. Pearson, too, believes that intuition can be compromised by life circumstances. “Intuition is only as good as the information you rely on,” he said. If the context you relied on changes, the information isn’t necessarily good anymore. He offers an analogy from physics: the difference between the observable world, which follows certain laws of physics, and the quantum world, which is nothing like the observable world. You can have the best intuition when you’re out among the electrons. But shrink yourself down inside an electron and your intuition ceases to be relevant, because the context has changed.
So getting older is not to blame for my hobbled gut instinct; rather, it may be my shifting context, along with the accompanying anxiety that comes with that. I left the knowable world and entered into my own quantum world when I had two kids in two years in my mid-30s. I went from a context of building a career and a family, to maintaining a career and a family. A world where opportunity seemed boundless, to one where every step felt like something was at stake. The contrasting information from my old world and my new world was like antimatter and matter meeting, only to annihilate each other.
The good news is that we seem to be able to train our intuition to get better. This is what Dr. Pearson plans to research next. In my case, it means training it to work inside a new context — something I might already be doing.
In fact, when I think back to that moment of sobbing on the bathroom floor, I see now that I was already trying to find a new pathway for better information. I remembered that I had thought about my dad, who passed away four years ago. But I was thinking about him less as a daughter, the young girl I once was, and more as a fellow parent, spouse and breadwinner — roles he had for more than 50 years and that I was now experiencing.
“Dad, what should I do?” I had asked out of desperation.
“Go eat dinner with your family,” I imagined him saying.
It’s exactly what I did, though I wouldn’t have called it intuitive. In fact, it didn’t feel right at all. It felt forced and difficult. But it started a series of conversations with my husband, and we were ultimately able to determine that we are better together than apart.
I think, then, that my intuition isn’t really gone. Or at least not gone for good. Rather, it’s off at training camp, learning what governs this newer world.
Judi Ketteler writes about the stress and joy of midlife, and she is working on a book about honesty.