Intuition Is Part of Rational Living
Your conscious and subconscious mind are like a boss and workers.
Table of Contents
Intuition is an important part of rational thinking and learning. Intuition includes subconscious ideas: ideas which aren’t in words and emotions. You can’t do all your thinking in conscious or explicit ways. To be an effective thinker, you need to understand your intuition and know when and why to use it. You must also learn how to train or improve your intuition.
In short, your brain is a computer. Your conscious mind uses 5% of your computing power and your intuition uses the other 95% of your computing power. However, you do need conscious thinking too, even though it has much less computing power. Trying to exclusively use intuition wouldn’t be a good or rational approach. Conscious thinking lets you do intentional, rational analysis and helps you improve your intuition. If you never did any conscious thinking, you wouldn’t learn and make progress effectively. (Also, never using your conscious mind seems kind of impossible, but some people don’t use their conscious mind very well or very rationally.)
The basic way you make progress in life is to, first, learn things consciously then, second, teach your subconscious to do them. Think of your conscious mind as the boss and then your subconscious mind as twenty workers. The workers don’t do much planning or take much initiative. The boss is crucial to creativity but the workers are sometimes creative in their own ways. The boss has to teach the workers to do jobs and sometimes has to simplify jobs (and break them down into smaller parts) so the workers can handle them. But the workers are very diligent and they’re good at remembering their jobs once they learn what to do. Also, each worker only does one job at a time but they’re fast workers who can do many jobs in one day. Sometimes it’s useful to think of your mind as having many thousands or millions of workers, rather than twenty, but twenty workers is often an adequate mental model.
Only using your subconscious mind would mean the boss never comes in to work and never tells the workers what to do. None of the workers are good at doing a leadership role, so then not much gets done.
Only using your conscious mind would mean the boss tries to do the work himself without delegating anything to the workers. The boss can do any job but he’s only one person so not much gets done. Also, the boss sometimes forgets how to do jobs that he (or she) assigned to workers years ago, while the workers still remember, so he’s actually worse at some of the jobs than the workers are. He’s capable of doing any job at least as well as one worker could, but it might first take a while for him to relearn how to do that job.
So there’s a basic pattern to life and learning. The boss figures how to do jobs first. For each new job, the boss (conscious mind) does it himself to figure it out well, then he teaches the workers (subconscious mind) how to do it, then he stops doing it and lets the workers take care of it. If there is a flaw in how the job is being done, then the boss needs to figure out how to do it in an improved way. He’ll do the job again while figuring out what changes to make, then once he figures out a better way to do it, he’ll teach that to the workers and stop doing the job again.
For some very hard and important jobs, the boss may keep it as his own job indefinitely because he can’t figure out how to teach it to the workers. But for the vast majority of jobs, the boss only does the job until the workers learn it, and then he stops doing it because he has plenty of other stuff to do and his time is really valuable (there’s only one of him). A hard, important job where the boss keeps doing it is something that requires conscious attention and focus, which you don’t learn to do on “autopilot”. An example would be brain surgery: brain surgeons always use conscious attention during surgery. Another example is driving a car; doing that without some conscious attention is dangerous. People sometimes “zone out” while driving, and they usually don’t crash when they let their intuition drive, but that is unsafe and you shouldn’t do it. You shouldn’t ever drive a car fully on autopilot without paying some conscious attention. The “boss” (conscious attention) should do some of the job during surgery or driving.
Even when the boss is working, the workers still do some supporting tasks. The boss doesn’t do everything. For example, when doing surgery or driving, you don’t use conscious attention to control the muscles in your hands and arms. You let your intuition or subconscious figure out which muscles to contract and when. You consciously think in terms of things like “turn the steering wheel left” but your subconscious workers do the hand movements (when you’re initially learning to drive, then you’d put conscious attention into figuring out how to turn the wheel, but not at the level of consciously controlling specific muscles, and experienced drivers don’t need conscious attention for turning the wheel). Experienced drivers tend to consciously think in terms like “go left” without even thinking about the wheel. Their conscious attention focuses on things like looking out for pedestrians or obstacles, taking the correct turns to follow their route, and watching to make sure nothing goes wrong. But their subconscious handles many details for them. There’s actually driving advice saying to look ahead on the road where you want to go and then your hands on the wheel will intuitively guide you to where you’re looking.
To make progress in your life, and learn a lot, you want the boss to keep learning new tasks and teaching them to workers. Whenever he spends his time doing tasks, like driving, you’re losing out on an opportunity to improve your subconscious. That’s OK sometimes though; you can’t spend all day learning or you’d get exhausted; the boss needs breaks. Improving your subconscious is one of the main ways to invest in yourself and your future.
What does the boss (consciousness) teaching the workers (subconscious) look like when you do it? What’s it concretely like? Mostly commonly, it’s like practicing. You practice tasks until they become more automatic, habitual and intuitive. You practice until they become easy and don’t require conscious attention to do correctly. You practice until you can do something on “autopilot”. If you keep doing that with more and more things, then you’ll keep making progress and being able to move your conscious attention on to more advanced issues.
As a rough approximation, your workers have unlimited energy to learn new tasks. Your subconscious can learn as many things as you want. The limiting factor is the boss figuring things out and teaching them. Your subconscious can handle being a life-long learner without getting tired out or running out of memory capacity, computing power, or other resources. You will forget skills you haven’t used recently and then need some time to refresh your memory and get your intuition back, but your subconscious can be good at whatever you’re actively using in your life without limiting you.
Part of progress is learning new skills. Another part is improving existing skills. Your conscious mind should spend a lot of time critically thinking about what you’re doing, looking for ways to do it could be better, and looking for things that are going wrong. When you notice a mistake or opportunity, you can consciously figure out how to handle the task or idea better, consciously deal with it at least a few times (or possibly a lot, depending on how much practice you need), then teach your subconscious the new, better knowledge.
Teaching your subconscious workers to do things generally involves a lot of showing them how by the conscious boss doing the job himself while they watch. That’s part of conscious, intentional practice. Another part of practice is the workers doing the job with the boss watching and correcting them on any mistakes. This is similar to how a person can teach a skill to another person. If you’re teaching someone how to hit a baseball, you would do it some yourself to show them, then they’d try doing it while you watch for mistakes. To get really good at it, they’d practice a lot. If it’s a low priority, they might only practice a little so they can do it but they aren’t great at it. Prioritizing is an important part of life.
Another thing your conscious mind/boss has to do, besides figuring out new skills and teaching them to your subconscious, is planning and prioritizing. He (or she) needs to think about what tasks or goals are actually important in your life, what areas to try to improve at, etc. Your priorities (and values) are something your subconscious mind can learn too, so that you have intuitive (possibly emotional) reactions to things that are good or bad according to your priorities (or values).
To be good at sports, you must practice skills like throwing or kicking a ball. To be good at intellectual stuff, you must practice skills like reading comprehension, writing clearly, grammar, logical thinking, or avoiding bias.
It can be harder to figure out what intellectual skills to teach your subconscious than it is for physical skills like sports or typing, but if you want to be a great intellectual then you must figure it out. It can be harder to figure out how to practice intellectual skills, but if you want to be very rational then you need to experiment and figure out some methods of intellectual practice that well work for you.
There are some common methods for intellectual practice such as math worksheets or flashcards, but e.g. practicing being unbiased is less typical. Here’s an example way to practice being less biased: read the titles and maybe abstracts of academic papers, then guess how high quality they are and whether the main claim should be believed due to this paper. Keep written documentation of the papers and your guesses. Then review the actual study details to see how well you did. Reviewing your documented results, you might find some patterns of bias in your initial guesses, e.g. you tend to overestimate the truth or quality of pro-environmentalist or anti-environmentalist claims (whichever one matches your politics). You could get better at spotting red flags (warning signs) quickly and use that to replace biased evaluation methods like spotting conclusions you like or dislike. You could also come up with explanations about why you were wrong about the studies you got wrong, and try to come up with ways to test those explanations and/or solutions. It’s also possible to brainstorm many more ways to practice skills related to bias. I think the main obstacle is that people aren’t trying to practice this, rather than it being too hard to come up with any good ways to practice.
Another example of intellectual practice would be working on discussion skills. You could have discussions, then try write down an accurate discussion tree (or outline) from memory, then check what you wrote against the actual discussion. (The discussions either needs to be in text or be recorded so that you can review them later.) If you practice that a bunch, you’ll be able to more accurately remember discussions. (Here’s an example of me writing out a long, complicated discussion tree from memory, then reviewing the original discussion to check for errors. With enough practice starting with smaller trees, results like this are achievable.) A skill you might practice first is making discussion trees at all so you can get better at understanding discussion structure (like what is a reply to what).
Everything I’ve said about the boss (conscious mind), workers (subconscious mind) and practice applies to intellectual skills, such as spotting biases or arithmetic errors. It doesn’t just apply to physical skills. To be a good thinker, you must break down intellectual activities into many simple parts that you can practice and teach to your subconscious workers. You must figure out patterns they can learn to recognize and methods (series of specific steps) they can follow to deal with each pattern. Practice can involve working on things until patterns come up enough that the workers get used to following good steps to deal with those patterns.
Good thinkers have powerful intuitions that can deal with a lot of intellectual tasks for them, such as spotting many types of errors and correctly following many methods for doing things well. For example, in a debate, whenever you are thinking of saying something, you should automatically, intuitively know if it’s biased or illogical, before you say it. Your intuition should catch warning signs for those mistakes (frequently but not in 100% of cases). If your intuition could (usually) warn you before you make those errors, you can imagine how that would help you discuss better. If you don’t have useful intuitions like those, then you’re at a huge disadvantage when debating with someone who does.
Your subconscious can do a lot of that for you if you’ve taught it how. For example, instead of making debate trees, I often simply automatically know their contents. Due to a huge amount of practice, my subconscious is good at keeping track of the debate structure for me. (And I keep working on this skill. Whenever I’m a little uncertain, I reread and double check things so I can find out and fix the problem if my intuition is making any errors. I regularly check the accuracy of these intuitions.) I do use conscious attention when reading people’s arguments. I don’t have debate, discussion or critical thinking fully automated.
I think creative tasks will always need some conscious attention. But the more your subconscious can do, the better. That lets you use less conscious attention and energy for the same level of discussion effectiveness. That frees up more conscious attention for doing more advanced tasks, doing complex analysis that you don’t know how to automate yet, learning new things, etc. Life is a progression of finding ways to free up your conscious attention from current tasks and ideas so that it can move on to more advanced tasks and ideas. Repeat that pattern enough and your subconscious intuition will be way more advanced than most people’s conscious analysis. But your conscious thinking can only realistically get a few steps ahead of your subconscious intuition, so if you don’t keep improving your intuitions you’re going to get stuck.
Keep in Mind One Thing to Learn
In general in life, for most things you’re doing, it’s good to have in mind one little part of it that you’re trying to learn and subconsciously automate. This turns everything into some sort of practice so you’re always making a little bit of progress. Try to come up with one aspect of a task that could be more automatic, easier and less conscious.
E.g. if you’re playing a video game or watching TV, even if you’re mainly trying to relax and be entertained, you should still have at least one little thing you’re trying gradually improve at. Don’t just fully shut off your rationality so that you aren’t getting any practice value whatsoever from your activity. But also don’t use difficult or ambitious goals that prevent your rest activities from being restful. You can learn more than one thing at a time, but focusing on a very small number of things is best so you don’t split your conscious attention too much.
In a video game, you could try to get used to using a mouse thumb button for something so your left hand is less busy, you could try to improve at aiming a specific ability, or you could try to get better at doing a sequence of 2-5 actions in a row so it becomes more automatic. You can do focused, intentional practice for these things, but that takes more effort. You can also just gradually work on them while playing in a relaxed, restful way by just keeping one little goal in the back of your mind. Then you’ll be a little more aware when you use the keyboard key again by habit instead of the mouse button, or more aware when you mess up the one specific sequence you’re trying to improve at. Just paying a little bit of conscious attention to some issue is often enough to get your subconscious to start gradually improving.
Another example of learning slowly, without turning restful activities into hard activities, involves watching YouTube. You could increase the playback speed by 1% of the baseline (1x) speed every month (using a browser extension that lets you set the speed using hundredths and lets you set a default speed which you can update monthly). That’s gradual enough that you’ll struggle to notice, so it shouldn’t be very hard or stressful. But after 5 years, you’d have improved significantly: you’d be watching 60% faster than when you started.
I’ll give another example for watching TV shows. After you finish a season of a show, write down your memory of the plot. It’ll be useful so you can review your notes before watching the next season. It shouldn’t be very stressful or hard since it’s infrequent, it’s OK to make mistakes, and you don’t have to show your notes to anyone. Over time you’ll gradually improve at following plots. You can try to get very slightly better at following plots, while you’re watching, without it being stressful or hard. You can expect significant improvement on a timescale of a few years, not right now. You may notice, after a while, some patterns in what you’re good and bad at remembering, and come up with some hypotheses about how you watch TV, what mistakes you make, and what to adjust. You can very gradually work on things like this while still finding TV watching easy and restful. You don’t have to make an intentional, conscious effort to practice while watching TV. If you merely put conscious effort into writing your notes after every season, you’ll likely find you automatically pay more attention to plots and improve. If all you do is write the notes every time, your subconscious can probably do the rest of the work (slowly, but you will improve some instead of none).
More generally, just measuring something or drawing attention to it tends to result in improvements for it (while things that aren’t measured or noticed get neglected and don’t improve or even get worse). This has been observed about companies which tend to optimize whatever metrics they are keeping track of, measuring and documenting. Paying attention is enough to get results without having to implement any specific policy changes or asking anyone to do anything. This works for self-improvement too. Whatever you pay conscious attention to and keep track of will probably improve gradually. The conscious attention tells your subconscious what your priorities are and gets it to seemingly automatically make some progress. If you don’t consciously keep in mind even one thing you want to get better at (for each activity you spend a significant amount of time on), then you’re wasting this opportunity/resource. You don’t have to keep the improvement goal in mind consciously at all times, but you need to remember it and be aware of it regularly rather than fully forgetting about it. Remembering the goal at the start and end of the relevant activity can be enough without having to consciously think about it in the middle. Sometimes at the end you’ll realize you forgot about it during the middle and doubt you made progress; in that case, you may need to remind yourself in the middle of the activity sometimes (setting timers/alarms can help).
A useful example to be familiar with is walking. Walking is a skill that you automated really well (so well that it’s hard to think of aspects of walking to keep practicing and improving at, whereas with video games or TV it’s easier to still find room for improvement). Why can you hold a conversation or listen to an audio book while walking? Because you’ve trained your subconscious to be really good at walking. But toddlers aren’t so good at walking yet and need to focus a lot of conscious attention on it. We aren’t born being great at walking. Children spend years improving at walking before reaching their adult level of skill and automatization. If you could be so effective at practicing and automatizing some intellectual skills, like you were with walking, then you could be a much better intellectual.
If you’re able to automate part of learning so that your subconscious can do it, then you can learn more things at once and learn more while still finding things easy and restful. It’s really powerful to teach your subconscious how to learn and automatize tasks so your conscious mind doesn’t have to figure everything out itself and teach your subconscious everything. If you can delegate some parts of learning to your subconscious, you can learn more.
Many people have some limited ability to do this, e.g. they can play a new video game and learn some simple skills (that are similar to skills in some games they played in the past) without ever consciously trying to learn those parts of the game. But it’s also pretty common that people briefly used conscious attention and forgot. E.g. they consciously thought “OK, it’s the A button to jump in this game” and then they didn’t have to go through a bunch of conscious practice to learn that, but some conscious attention was used initially. Sometimes games share features with other games, so you reuse some of your subconscious learning from a previous game – e.g. you might just hit the A button and expect it to jump because it was jump in a similar game and you got used to that. As long as what your subconscious is doing already works correctly, then you might not need conscious attention to teach it what to do. Your conscious might just watch for things going wrong and figure out adjustments to deal with ways this game is different than prior games.
Your conscious mind uses only a small fraction of your brainpower. To use the rest of your brainpower, you must delegate tasks to your subconscious. You must practice so your subconscious can learn how to do things. Doing this well automatizes things – it lets you do some things automatically from the perspective of your consciousness. Your subconscious does them so they no longer require conscious thought. That frees up your conscious mind to think about more advanced things. Making progress involves catching your subconscious up to your conscious knowledge, then consciously advancing to more advanced knowledge, then catching your subconscious up again, and repeating that cycle. Good intellectuals use their subconscious brainpower instead of trying to do intellectual analysis just by conscious effort. People don’t have enough conscious effort/energy to work that way; they need to use their much more plentiful subconscious resources.