Neural Basis of Intuition

Intuition vs. Deliberation?

Activation within the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and the ventral occipito-temporal (VOT) complex revealed for the contrast between trials that participants judged to be meaningful with trials they judged to be meaningless (cp. Volz & von Cramon, 2006)

People’s judgments sometimes seem “intuitive”: they come to mind quickly, they are reached with little apparent effort, typically without conscious awareness of their origin or the manner of their formation, and they involve little or no conscious deliberation. In contrast, other judgments seem “deliberate”: they arise from tedious and complex thought processes that are assumed to be apparent and accessible to awareness (e.g., Evans, 2008; Kruglanski & Gigerenzer, in press).

It has been stated that these two types of judgments have been treated differentially in the cognitive sciences, in that analytic philosophy, economics, and decision theory focused on deliberate, reflective judgments and decisions, whereas social psychology and psychoanalysis focused on intuitive, spontaneous behaviors (Kruglanski & Gigerenzer, in press). Consequently, psychologists have proposed that the mind is equally divided. Thus, in the last thirty years a number of models have been suggested that are based on the assumption "that judgments can be formed via two qualitatively distinct processes, or systems" (Kruglanski & Gigerenzer, in press).

These dual system approaches have not given us detailed process models, nor did they succeed in understanding when and why people’s judgments are intuitive or deliberate. In the words of Kruglanski and Gigerenzer such dual-system approaches even “impeded a deeper examination of the psychology of judgment” (p.32). Also, the inclusion of neuroscientific results on the neural correlates of intuitive and rational judgments could not advance a deeper understanding: different authors suggested different brain regions/brain networks to crucially sub-serve intuitive and deliberate judgments (e.g., De Martino et al., 2006; Lieberman, 2000; Kuo et al., 2009; for an overview see Volz & von Cramon, 2008). That is, specific brain regions were associated with intuitive judgments in one study and with deliberate judgments in another.

The aim of the junior research group is thus to foster a deeper understanding of intuitive (and deliberate) judgmental processes.

The immediate and long-term goals of the junior research group are to determine the relationship between intuitive responses in the perceptual domain and those in the judgment- and decision-making domain as well as in the moral domain; to investigate (behaviorally and neurally) the effects of age and of different types of intuition conceived of as personality traits (e.g., Pretz & Brookings, 2009) on intuitive judgments; and ultimately to move toward specific models of the judgmental process by investigating the factors attentional capacity and processing motivation as well as the match between strategies and the structure of the environment – so-called ecological rationality (Gigerenzer et al., 1999).

First, we pursue our research goals via a thorough conceptual clarification of the concept of intuition, which certainly has to include concepts from philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. Crucially, a differentiation between intuition and emotion and implicit memory is needed.

Second, we believe that the use of imaging techniques could be especially helpful in determining the underlying processes of intuitive judgments. That is, by determining structural features of activated areas as well as their connectivity, additional information about underlying mechanisms (especially those relying on unconsciously applied associations) can be revealed. Exemplary previous research on intuitive judgments in the visual domain is sketched: results from an fMRI (Volz & von Cramon, 2006), MEG (Bar et al., 2006), and an EEG (Luu et al., 2010) study on object recognition, which was made difficult by blurring the visual input, revealed a) activation within the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), i.e., within an area not typically associated with object recognition processes (see graphic); b) that this activation did not serve post-recognition semantic processes, but c) it showed itself to be critical for early facilitation effects, i.e. OFC activation developed earlier than activation in areas traditionally known to sub-serve object recognition processes. Together, it is suggested that the OFC serves as a (pre-conscious) detector of potential content.

Group Leader and Further Information

Kirsten Volz
Neural Basis of Intuition
Werner Reichardt Centre for Integrative Neuroscience
Otfried-Mueller-Str. 25
72076 Tübingen

Phone: +49 (0)7071 29-89106
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