Funny thing about asking someone, “What is Intuition?” And you will get different answers. Some will say it is your inner conscience, others will say it is your ability to quickly differentiate while others will opine that it is mindless instantaneous reaction. Of all the answers the last one is intriguing. And it is pretty close to the official definition: “the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning,” (from the Latin word "Intuir" or knowledge from within) don’t you think?
We function through the day as radiant blossoms or wilted lilies. The modus inspired by what elevates our spirits or weighs down our minds. It might be looking forward to a quiet evening listening to music, thinking about a solution to a pet project or starting a paper due in the math class the next day, a business plan for a customer, or dictating a consultation that involves a large dose of research. In the more delightful measures of expectations, we dive head long with the Rosseauvian delight. All in! Here the corridors appear as large expectant runways at International Airports and navigating is applied with ease. In the latter each corridor is filled with constrictions to passage and the whole task is laborious and trying. Our ability to circumnavigate the complex jungle of our existence is enhanced through intuition. Intuition protects us, saves us from disasters and lacking it with equal measure can feed us into the lion’s den.
After conducting a “Human Factor and Decision Making” seminar at the FAA Seminar, I was asked to fly with a pilot for a flight review. He was good. All the steep turns, the slow flight, detecting impending stalls and recovery from actual stalls was done with proficiency and thoroughness. He after all had several thousand hours under his belt. Equally his gaze was never fixated. His eyes glanced at all the gauges under the glow and flicker of each instrument. Monitoring the airspeed, the attitude indicator, the Vertical Speed Indicator, the turn coordinator, the wind direction, the aircraft crab angle, the pitch and yaw in the turn, the fuel consumption, the ground-speed, the trim, the radio communication with Air Traffic Control, while my was gaze was outside the windshield to look for other aircraft and he all the while communicating with me about his intentions of what he was doing. All these actions were being performed effortlessly and with a certain command on the phraseology of the spoken sentence and the articulation of the intended thought. This was multitasking at its best. Or was it?
This was the Jeffersonian hand at play; a thoughtful, implicit consent to be governed by the explicit rules of the game. Experiential references carried the day. If you prefer we could term that as “muscle memory.” How do we build that muscle memory? The answer is obvious by practicing the required subset of practical knowledge. One cannot learn this straight from the book. Knowing that reducing power causes changes in the aircraft attitude is one relegated to experience as the acceleration decreases and the plan lurches forward nose down to regain that speed and without a pilot’s input it would reach the speed that would increase the lift and by virtue of aerodynamic laws it would try to climb again and create an unbalanced pitch motion. It goes back to the old mantra of Lift to weight and thrust to drag ratio. So unless you have felt the forces at play while flying the aircraft, you could hold yourself as an aviator in front of a landlubber class of hundreds and fool them, by regurgitating “bookish words.” Sitting in the pilot’s seat for a minute and experiencing the sensations is worth more than the countless hours of learning by rote.
Let us get back to my proficiency seeking pilot in the left seat for the moment. We had accomplished a lot in the almost four hours of flight. No there were no moments of fright in this flight. Everything was a seamless act of coordination and evaluation. This guy was good. We were flying over a beautiful countryside over Tennessee, with fields of green and red rose bushes visible too as cows snacked on grass and empty roads on a workday flew by below, all visible from the side window of my right seat.
We were at 3000 feet and about 10 miles from the nearest airport. I decided to test his one main skill.
I killed the engine!
He looked at me dumbfounded.
I asked, “What is the first thing you are going to do?”
“I will push the mixture, prop and throttle to the max!” he responded.
“I will check the magnetos!”
“I will change the fuel tanks and turn on the fuel boost pump!” he said in a husky voice, his face taking on an amber shade of yellow. The push and pull of remote thought and recent encounter danced in a fugue dreamscape; diving in madly then holding back to review, as all the memorization poured out in a linear splash.
“I will change the Transponder to squawk 7700!”
“I will call ATC and declare an Emergency!” His face was now the color of fusion between red and purple.
Meanwhile the aircraft is flying at 165knots and we had lost 500 feet during this discussion. Now the cows seemed concerned too, their mouths frozen in mid mastication. The tiny windmill below shook to the sudden gusty breeze from the west. The moment lingered.
“Well then I give up.” He said as his face slumped. He had abrogated his responsibility in flying the aircraft. “Oh, I would pull out my Pilot Operating Handbook! Is that what you are looking for?”
“Glide Speed.” I said quietly.
“Pitch to Glide Speed!” I said with a little emphasis. “That should be your first reaction…always. Transferring speed energy into altitude gives you more distance to find a suitable site to land. It also adds to your time to find the potential cause of the engine failure and find a safe landing zone and it diminishes your descent rate flying at L/D max (or maximum lift with the weakest of drag).”
“What do we do now?” he asked
“Land the plane!”
“You mean anywhere?”
“Anywhere, safe!” I answered.
His instincts took over as he gained some altitude, transitioning to glide speed and making all the arrangements to land. He looked at an open pasture and set himself up to land on the green grassy field to his left.
Once he had committed and the safe landing was assured I restarted the engine at around 700 feet and off we went headed back for the airport, which was now only 4 miles away. In a debriefing later, he acknowledged that had he resorted to glide speed immediately that we would have easily made it to the airport given the winds at 3000 feet.
You cannot learn that kind of knowledge from reading books. If ever he was faced with such a dilemma, he will know what to do without hesitation. Now this will be in his repertoire to execute effortlessly as a routine. After the red blush on his face had waned a bit, he came over during dinner the next night and thanked me for the lesson. “I will never forget that.” he said. The Angel of Reason had visited him overnight.
That in itself was the best reward!
A Short Psychology of Intuition:
From William James' two mode Intuitions of "Effortless and Fast or Rational and Analytical to Kahneman's Type and Type II modes of intuition, both embody the visceral mid-brain response and the contemplated neo-cortical revisions. The Type I is ingrained from age-old hunter gatherer fear and flight function to escape beasts and monsters and the Type II is learnt. As Massimo Pigliucci stated in his book Answers for Aristotle,"Moreover, intuitions get better with practice — especially with a lot of practice — because at bottom intuition is about the brain’s ability to pick up on certain recurring patterns; the more we are exposed to a particular domain of activity the more familiar we become with the relevant patterns (medical charts, positions of chess pieces), and the more and faster our brains generate heuristic solutions to the problem we happen to be facing within that domain." Meanwhile causal links that determine our intuition is illustrated by this statement from Kahneman, "You have to think of [your associative memory] as a huge repository of ideas, linked to each other in many ways, including causal links and other links, and activation spreading from ideas to other ideas until a small subset of that enormous network is illuminated, and the subset is what’s happening in the mind at the moment. You’re not conscious of it, you’re conscious of very little of it." Thus it is all about the coherence of the causal links that are arrived at in the form of intuition. Perceived causality and the reaction to it, after all are the underpinnings of all rational reasoned thoughts. Inadvertently however, there are moments where the fly in the ointment is perceived and the flaw of jumping to conclusions comes into play and overconfidence is the outcome. This overconfidence stems from the coherence of disjointed beliefs and thus can create a major error. The human mind has the capacity and capability to fool itself with wonderful stories built upon a foundation of little or no evidence. Unfortunately, when executing such ill-begotten plans the person subjectively has the same sense of accomplishment as another who has done his or her due diligence. So at times raw intuition is a man with a Janus face holding a double-edged sword!
Intuition is borne of experience. No amount of cognitive rationalizing and reasoning in moments of distress can bring about the right outcome except a brush with that one dose of raw experience. Speaking of comparing medicine and piloting, as most experts tend to do, this is the only intersect between the two; learning from raw experience!