The Mind’s Analytical-Intuitive Dialectic

Life can be confusing and contradictory. Part of the reason is that the brain has many different systems for processing data. The two most obvious and important systems are called the analytical system and the intuitive system. Both systems operate at all times, and one system will override the other in certain contexts.

The analytical system is generally associated with the left-brain. It is logic based. The intuitive system is associated with the right brain, and is holistic, visual-spatial-emotionally based.

The analytical system is slower and the intuitive system is faster. The analytical system deliberates, thinking through things, while the intuitive system leaps to conclusions, almost always without verbal thought. The intuitive process is more about a quick response to a perceived pattern, while the analytical process assembles the parts, the facts, and works logically toward a sensible conclusion.

Example: What would you do if I gave you 1000 dollars, no strings attached? Think about it. Most of us will have some analytical system responses as well as some intuitive system responses to such a question. We can distinguish the two different types of answers pretty easily.

The pragmatic, logical analytical system would figure out what makes the most sense—typical responses are things like “pay bills, invest, save it, get some home repairs done, some needed medical care” etc. On the other hand, what about the intuitive system? The intuitive system decides by feelings, by wants and desires, selfish or unselfish. Typical answers might be things like “buy luxury items for myself or for people I love, travel, donate to my favorite charity, get a nose job, give it to a homeless person, buy a new bicycle, get a great tattoo” etc.

Since the two systems operate simultaneously, at all times, there are naturally going to be conflicts. Your intuitive system might really really really want to do something, and your analytical system keeps saying “that just isn’t logical—it just doesn’t make sense.”

When both systems are working well, they are what I would call reality-based. In OODA loop terms, Observations are clear, and both the Analytical and Intuitive systems operate based on what is happening in the moment, in reality.

Problems arise when one or both of the two systems are stuck rigidly in a pattern that was learned in the past but does not necessarily match the present moment.

For example, in my private practice as a psychologist I work daily with people who are responding intuitively in ways that are no longer functional. Their ‘gut level’ automatic reactions aren’t working for them, and they need to use their analytical thought processes to override and reprogram themselves. On the other hand, invariably, the exact same people will repeatedly use their analytical mind to ignore gut level reactions that are relevant to the present moment.

For those who prefer black or white solutions, this is, at first, perplexing. On the one hand, ‘trust your feelings’ is the advice, on the other hand, ‘use your rational analytical mind to override your irrational feelings’ is the advice. But, it is not a simple either-or choice. It depends on the context.

For example: Many of us will acquire major or minor fears when we are kids. In my own case I became afraid of spiders at an early age. I would react with extreme fear or panic whenever I encountered a spider. In a classic fight-flight response, I would either kill the spider or run. My knee-jerk intuitive reaction was that of full-blown fear- there was no discernible analysis on my part. In my ‘spider moments’, I was pure fear.

Something happened with the spiders that changed things for me. I was probably 9 or 10. I was playing with some friends one day. They were older boys. I looked up to them because I thought they were tough and competent, traits which wanted for myself. I encountered a spider somewhere and had a strong visible fear reaction. My older friends made fun of me. I was embarrassed and I got my feelings hurt. I was also angry at myself—these fellows I looked up to were not afraid of the spider at all, and I was acting terrified! How was I ever going to be a tough competent fellow if I kept freaking out every time I saw a spider?

Something had to change—I was determined not to be embarrassed by my fear in front of my friends anymore. I got out my encyclopedia and started reading about spiders. At first it was hard for me to even look at some of the pictures—they were such scary creatures! But, I was a natural researcher, so my intellectual curiosity was soon hooked on learning about spiders. In just a few minutes of reading, spiders became objects of fascination and curiosity. And, I was strongly relieved when I discovered that there were basically only two spiders in my locale that were of any danger, and even bites form those were rarely fatal. All of those other spiders were harmless, including the one that had scared me when I was with my friends.

I built a strong logical analytical base of pragmatic logical knowledge about spiders. The intuitive fear, however, did not magically go away. I still had the automatic powerful urge to react in panic or fear when I encountered spiders. However, now I had a strong analytical understanding of spiders, and I also had strong social motivation in seeking the approval of the older boys. It took awhile (years, actually) but my reaction to spiders gradually changed to one of calmness (most of the time!)

Thus, we can use our analytical process to override intuitive reactions that no longer serve us.

There is an opposite problem. Sometimes our strong analytical system causes us to ignore our intuitive reactions in a way that does not serve us.

In my private practice I work with a lot of childhood trauma survivors. Many are sexual abuse victims and many also come from homes in which one or both parents were angry, controlling, and physically abusive. Such parents often have rigid rules about all kinds of situations—children who laugh at the wrong time are punished, children who get angry and express it are punished, children who object to chores are punished, children who cry are beaten to make them stop crying, children who don’t like to eat liver or turnips are humiliated, beaten, or shamed—

Starting to get the picture? When we are punished by those who have power over us for our natural, intuitive system reactions, we will learn to use our analytical mind to repress or ignore our intuitive reactions. After all, those intuitive reactions will get us hurt!

Here’s an example: Barry grew up with a dominating, physically and verbally abusive mother. While he felt that she loved him, he understood that if he broke one of her many unspoken rules there would be Hell to pay later- he would get yelled at, slapped, humiliated and punished if he said or did the wrong thing. Sometimes it seemed to Barry that her punishment came out of the blue- he was never sure if he was safe or not.

As most children who survive are prone to do, Barry became an expert at observing the moods of his mother. He learned when to avoid her entirely and when it was perilous to contradict her. In order to act in a manner that was inoffensive to his mother, Barry learned to suppress his intuitive reactions. If his mother said something that angered him or hurt his feelings, Barry learned to show no emotion so that his mother’s rage would not get triggered.

Barry survived it. His mom didn’t kill him, and he didn’t kill himself, so Barry eventually grew up and left home. Somehow he managed to marry a woman who had (surprise!) a problem with rage. But it wasn’t really a problem for Barry—he was already an expert. He knew how to handle that situation; after all, he had been in training for years with his raging mother.

He ended up in rehabilitation for alcoholism a few years later.

His counselors were quick to understand that Barry had become a doormat for angry people, angry women especially—he was so adept at neglecting his intuitive reactions that he had ‘lost touch’ with his feelings.

Barry’s early childhood environment had trained him to be silent. Barry benefited from assertiveness training—he needed some interpersonal skills that allowed him to give voice to his feelings in a way that was neither aggressive nor passive.

When something goes wrong for you, learn to tune in to both streams of data—the analytical and the intuitive. Both are rich sources of information, and both are necessary for our balanced functioning as humans.

More later— this is a very superficial introduction to some very complex issues, but we have to start somewhere.

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One Response to “The Mind’s Analytical-Intuitive Dialectic”

  1. antonio lucero 17. Dec, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    This explanation of the causes and cures of being either overly analytic or being overly intuitive was excellent!

    I am currently working on a short book in which a central issue is the duality of the intuitive and the analytical within each of us.