Intuition and the Importance of Being in Your Right Mind

Writers often have good first-hand knowledge of the duality of the human mind. The unconscious is a fertile source of insight and imagination, while the conscious mind wants to enforce structure and rationality on our fevered ramblings—sometimes to the point of editing them out of existence. In writing, as in life, it’s important to find balance.

The unconscious mind is often our first line of defense, grasping incongruities that the conscious mind overlooks. In the book Housekeeping for the Soul, Sandra Carrington-Smith says that the unconscious mind sends its suggestions as “a very light punch in the stomach and the lingering sensation that something is not right, although we can’t quite put our finger on it. If not acknowledged, this subtle feeling can easily be drowned out by our rational mind and the thoughts formulated by the ego.”

One way to approach the unconscious vs. rational mind is to think of them as representing the two hemispheres of the brain. In Jill Bolte Taylor’s remarkable TED talk, she explains that the two hemispheres are completely separate from one another:

  • The right hemisphere focuses on the present moment. Feeling connected to everything around it, it thinks in pictures, creating a collage from the sensory information it perceives.
  • The left hemisphere is linear. It thinks in words, focusing on details, separating things into their component parts. It compares present data to the past, or uses the data to project the future.

The left brain wants things to be logical. It doesn’t always trust the thought-pictures that the right brain sends. It can’t convert them into words, so it can’t categorize them. Those thought-pictures then settle as a feeling in our gut, a feeling that it’s easy to rationalize away.

But there’s nothing mystical about the perceptions of the right brain. They’re as true and meaningful as left-brain perceptions. When we suppress or misuse right-brain data, we can create all sorts of trouble for ourselves.

In fiction, flashes of insight offer an opportunity to foreshadow events or create suspense. When used skillfully, intuition can be the hunch that helps the detective solve the crime, or the bad feeling that prompts a mother to lead her child out of danger. When ignored, intuition can be the signal that the college student is making a terrible mistake leaving the nightclub with a man she just met. When overused—without the counterbalancing effect of the more analytical conscious mind—intuition could lead the rich widower to fall for the sweet young thang whom he “just knows” loves him and not his money.

Unless you’re writing speculative fiction, it’s your job to offer a rational explanation for the gut instincts of your characters. Drop hints that create the same sense of unease in the reader that the character feels. That way, whether the character’s intuition leads in the right direction or leads astray, the reader won’t feel manipulated. The story will just feel right.

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