Intuition: the power of supra-rational thinking

Do we place too much of an emphasis on rationality over intuition? Our education system places great emphasis on developing our capacities for collecting data, applying reason and using logic. These are very worthwhile means of gaining knowledge, but we generally pay much less attention to ways of developing our intuition, another form of understanding and guidance.

This is an underlying theme of the recent film, The Man Who Knew Infinity. It tells the tale of the Indian mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan who rose from poverty and obscurity to ultimately be acclaimed as one of the greatest mathematicians of the last century. However, when he arrived in Cambridge in 1914 at the invitation of his mentor, GH Hardy, he was initially viewed with extreme scepticism and disdain by many of his traditional peers.

Their negative reaction to Ramanujan was not so much based on racism, as their objection to his unconventional ways of thinking. He could not conventionally explain his reasoning that enabled him to derive formulae that solved complex mathematical problems. He was not so concerned about demonstrating conventional proofs for his mathematical expressions, as he felt that their validity could be demonstrated in other ways.

Most mathematicians would work by applying their understanding of various concepts to build a formula. That would be a rational process. By contrast, Ramanujan worked the other way around, drawing on intuition. He felt that he had received his understanding from something beyond him. The formulae came to him first, and their accuracy and significance were often revealed later. Ramanujan specifically attributed his intuitive understanding to a Goddess who “wrote on his tongue”, sometimes revealing solutions to him in visions and dreams. The contemporary mathematician, Ken Ono, described Ramanujan as more of a poet that a problem solver.

Strikingly, the potential application and meaning of many of Ramanujan’s formulae were most relevant to things that only became of interest well after his death. For example, he detailed “mock-theta functions”, extremely complex formulae that are relevant to current understanding of string theory in physics, and such phenomena as black holes.

Despite recognizing Ramanujan’s genius from their earliest correspondence, GH Hardy was himself perplexed by Ramanujan’s reticence to account for his findings using conventional proofs. No doubt their collaboration, which helped many such proofs to be discovered, consolidated the appreciation and usefulness of Ramanujan’s work. Nonetheless, it’s clear that Ramanujan had drawn on a most worthwhile method that was not well appreciated and accepted, even though it led to solutions being found that Hardy and others believed could not be derived in any conventional way.

As a psychologist, I have become especially interested in the under-recognized potential of intuition to solve problems or address challenges. I have now heard of countless examples where others acted on an intuition that defied any rational explanation, and benefited greatly by doing so. Sometimes it even saved their lives. I hear such examples much more often now that my clients and other acquaintances know that I have written a book on synchronicity.

This is one example. A friend, Ross, explained how he was once travelling on foot alongside a highway in Queensland and decided to sleep on one side of the road, sheltering beneath a bush. Soon after he lay down to go to sleep, he had a strong, inexplicable urge to move to the other side of the road. He was initially quite reluctant to do so in the windy conditions, as the ground on the other side of the highway was more damp, uneven and less sheltered. Minutes later, a passing car ran off the road through the bush where he been sheltering and then back onto the road again. It was as though he had received a message from something beyond him. He had learnt to respond to such messages before. If he had dismissed his intuitive urge to move as being irrational, he almost certainly would not be alive to tell his story.

Ross’s thought process might not have seemed rational, at least in the sense of being explicable in terms of reason or logic. But this did not make his insight less valid. Nor was it less than rational. Like Ramanujan, many of Ross’s previous intuitive insights had proved to be true in an uncanny and most advantageous way. He had many stories describing times when he had experienced favourable outcomes by acting on intuition. In many such situations, these outcomes might not be achieved through rational thinking alone.

For this reason, I refer to the examples of Ramanujan’s mathematical ability and Ross’s life-saving intuition as reflecting “the power of supra-rational thinking”. They are not so much irrational as beyond rational. Intuition is not a lesser form of thinking, but merely a different form. Undoubtedly, it is often important to apply our reason in solving problems. Science and formal knowledge in many areas would not likely have advanced anywhere near as far without such discipline. But this does not mean that we should ignore intuition, or disparage those who claim to find it especially useful.

In my view, the most powerful form of understanding will often apply reason and intuition at one and the same time. This partly involves appreciating our implicit, as well as explicit, thinking. But these stories suggest that at least some people might intuitively tap into an awareness that exists beyond themselves. We seem to be very good at developing our thinking that uses our brain like a computer. I think we are perhaps in our infancy in terms of learning to use our mind as a receiver. This may relate to processes of enlightenment. There seems little to lose in exploring this potential further – the power of supra-rational thinking.

In my book, Synchronicity: Empower your life with the gift of coincidence, I describe many examples of the benefits of drawing on deep intuition. Recognizing the potential relevance and meaning of remarkable coincidences in our lives seems to be an especially useful way of tapping into a deep intuitive realm. In my own life, and in that of many of my clients and others, it is one of the most useful ways of helping clarify our sense of life purpose and meaning. Synchronicity can point the way to our personal destiny. It can guide us toward enlightenment.

Chris Mackey is a Fellow of the Australian Psychological Society with 35 years’ experience as a clinical and counselling psychologist. His book, Synchronicity: Empower your life with the gift of coincidence, was released internationally by Watkins Publishing in September 2015. Additional articles on synchronicity are posted at www.synchronicityunwrapped.com.au.