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Study Reveals Where Rapid-Access to Intuition Occurs in the Brain

An interesting study (Xiaohong Wan et al., 2011) reported that rapid-access intuition, where one has to make a split-second decision, occurred in the caudate nucleus, a part of the basal ganglia (see image) an area responsible for learning, executing habits, and automatic behavior.

Location of caudate nucleus in the brain

What is interesting about this study is the method used to test subjects and the conclusions the researchers made regarding intuition. The researchers used a Japanese game called Shogi, a game much more complex than chess, where each player has 20 pieces and captured pieces can be dropped in any empty position on the board. Players were presented with a challenge whereby they were required to make a decision that would win the game in one second - not enough time to access a more considered move. Subjects' brains were scanned throughout this process. In a second trial, players were given up to eight seconds to choose their next move.

Their findings were interesting. When players were making split-second decisions, the caudate nucleus area of the brain was activated consistently. Given the opportunity to weigh and consider one's next move for up to eight seconds, the players' cortex area (toward the back of the brain) was activated, which had not been accessed during the rapid-decision exercise. The caudate nucleus was not accessed during the longer decision times.

While I found this study interesting, I also must consider the assumption that intuition in this study is considered to be used primarily in rapid-fire decision making. Players are taught the game and, therefore, have some knowledge of possible moves and outcomes. Compare this to how most of us use our intuition - where we have more time to consider our next "move" and where intuition often comes in the form of a thought, sign, symbol, feeling, or simply knowing. Other studies have shown that this more thoughtful form of intuition originates in the right hemisphere of the brain...I'll be presenting a few studies along those lines in the future. But these results are interesting in that the researchers were able to demonstrate how we access the brain differently, depending upon whether we have time to compare, judge, and reason, vs. when we need an immediate answer.

I hope you'll join me on future journeys into the brain!



Intuitive Investigations®


The Neural Basis of Intuitive Best Next-Move Generation in Board Game Experts. Xiaohong Wan, et al. in Science, Vol. 331, pp. 341-346; January 21, 2011.

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