The Rain Man Effect: How to Recognize and Hone Intuition

What is intuition and how do we experience it? This is a question I’ve thought a lot about as a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine. Though my work is based on the science of herbal prescribing and acupuncture point indications, there is also a subtle art to the medicine that draws heavily on intuition. After years of recognizing the flow of intuition, my interpretation is that one aspect of intuition is a subconscious conveyance of pattern recognition. Let’s explore what that means and how you can hone your intuition to empower your health.  

There is a scene in the 1988 film “Rain Man” in which Dustin Hoffman’s character, an autistic savant, observes a dropped box of toothpicks and pronounces the exact number of strewn toothpicks. When he mutters the number “246,” people are amazed by his extraordinary ability. But there’s more to this scene than meets the eye that speaks volumes about what I think intuition is.

Consider how the brain works: For the average person to know how many total objects are in a pile of more than 10 or 20, counting would be necessary. Perhaps we count by twos or threes to quickly add up the total, but essentially we derive the solution by chunking, or breaking, the problem into smaller parts.

Chunking is not needed with fewer items because our brains can recognize a sum with a quick glance. If three pencils were on a desk, we don’t count one, two, three. Instead we see three items. If we’re really good, perhaps we can visualize six or seven items. If we’re Rain Man, we “see” 246 items as one complete perception. This is pattern recognition, and we do it all the time. 

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My wife and I recently taught our daughter how to read an analog clock, another feat of pattern recognition. A digital clock displays numbers, and our brains interpret those numbers exactly. There is nothing ambiguous about seeing 4:24 p.m. on a digital clock. A child can easily tell time on a digital clock, yet understanding an analog one takes a little finesse. With learning to read an analog clock, the visual pattern of the hands provides more nuanced information because the part of the brain that processes spatial awareness also contributes to our awareness of time. While the mathematical part of the brain is ascertaining the exact numerical time, the spatial aspect is providing a nonspecific interpretation of time.

Put another way, an analog clock need not have any numbers on its face, as is the case with some wristwatches. The hatch marks that indicate the hour are sufficient for the spatial aspect of the brain to assess the approximate time with a quick glance. It is also easier to get a broader sense of time with a spatial awareness. Seeing a digital clock display 4:24 p.m. and recognizing that it is almost the half hour requires two steps: becoming cognizant of the exact time and then doing the math to see what fraction of the hour it is closest to. With an analog clock, we see the minute hand between the 5 and 6 and instantly know the time is almost 4:30. We can do this because of pattern recognition.

Now scale that ability to other aspects of life, and you’ll see how intuition manifests. As a healthcare provider, I can often perceive an analogous thread in the symptom picture of a new patient that sparks a memory from someone I treated years prior. They may be totally different people, but something about the gestalt of their presentation matches, prompting me to connect the dots between how I treated the previous patient (if successful) and how I might handle the current patient. What appears as intuition is not a conscious comparing of the two patients. 

As one fully formed thought, my brain made the connection and presented it to my conscious mind as a single coherent insight. This is the key to recognizing intuition. It doesn’t arise as a stream of conscious thought the way we count items on a desk. Intuition is the ability to glance at a situation and get a mature assessment in a flash. 

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This brings up a few interesting points. First, nothing about this take on intuition is mystical. Pattern recognition is an innate feature of human evolution that aided our survival. We all experience eerie coincidences and serendipities, such as thinking of an old friend only to have that person call. I can’t explain those, but the quality of everyday thinking gives rise to experiencing intuition almost daily.

Another point to consider is that intuition in the form of pattern recognition is a feature of subconscious cognition. When our thinking mind evaluates a situation, it occurs in our native language; we literally speak to ourselves with the syntax of language. Intuition, as a subconscious awareness, is unbound from words and often arises as a feeling, impression, or state of knowing.

This is what we do when we look at an analog clock and what Rain Man did when he saw the box of toothpicks fall—we gauge the situation as a cohesive whole. By this definition, life experience is helpful in cultivating intuition. The more angles of a task or circumstance we see, the better equipped we are to receive intuitive impressions.

The other key element to developing intuition is letting go of conscious perception and allowing the body’s innate wisdom to speak. This is easier said than done, but the eye perceives and the body feels way more than what filters into our conscious experience. What remains in the recesses of the subconscious is the basis for intuition as pattern recognition. Any mindfulness practice that calms the thinking mind in deference to the feeling body can help spark intuition.

The final step is to practice letting these moments speak to you. Can you glance at a pantry shelf, as with an analog clock, and feel what would best nourish your body? Can you reflect on myriad symptoms, similar to strewn toothpicks, and derive a casual pattern? If so, you’ve just flexed your intuitive muscle and are one step farther down the road of personal empowerment.

November 19, 2021

Categories: Philosophy

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