What's Beyond Reason? Intuition and Well-Being

We are an injured society. Despite dramatic gains in science and technology, we are losing our health, our happiness, and our sanity. Extraordinary advances in science and technology, such as mapping the human genome, increasing the human lifespan, and information access via the Internet, are coupled with an increasing sense of complexity and information overload. Individuals across the lifespan are feeling a sense of frustration, stress, and confusion as they wade through the increasing complexities of life. Demands on individual time and energy in our consumer-oriented world in the face of rising rates of violence, environmental hazards, and war are affecting our mental health world-wide. One in two adults experience a significant mental health disorder in their lifetime. One in five children meet criteria for a major psychiatric disorder, an even greater percentage of youth suffer from issues of mood, anxiety, or learning difficulties but are not meeting criteria for a diagnosis and/or are undetected for services. Violence, suicide, and substance use are at an all time high among our youth reflecting these difficulties. How do make societal change to improve our mental health as a nation, to bring about more mindful citizens, more connected communities, and a kinder society?

It begins when the rational mind and the intuitive mind are in balance. Research has yielded massive amounts of knowledge of the developing brain, neuroscience, genetics, and the impact environmental factors can have on these processes and in shaping human behavior. Yet, our research has led us to accept scientific models of investigation that are at times reductionistic and limited in view by virtue of their inherent mode of discovery. While recognizing the importance of this line of investigation, a balance in science, medicine, education and society at large may require opening up to a more 'intuitive' way of knowing. Even the greatest proponents of reason recognize the more intuitive mode of knowing, Thomas Paine, in The Age of Reason writes, "Any person who has made observations on the state and progress of the human mind by observing his own cannot but have observed that there are two distinct classes of what are called thoughts - those that we produce in ourselves by reflection and the act of thinking, and those that bolt into the mind of their own accord. I have always made it a rule to treat these voluntary visitors with civility, taking care to examine, as well as I was able, if they were worth entertaining, and it is from them I have acquired almost all the knowledge that I have. As to the learning that any person gains from school education, it serves only, like a small capital, to put him in a way of beginning learning for himself afterward".

Intuition is defined as a non-rational process of entering into knowledge (Webster, 2005). Difficult to measure, neuroscientists and psychologists are beginning to investigate processes related to intuition such as 'insight' 'creativity' and 'curiosity'. A parallel line of research emerging from mind-body medicine is an investigation of 'mindfulness', described as "moment-by-moment awareness of one's experiences" (Bishop et al., 2005). Interestingly, mindfulness has been operationalized as composed of two components: attention and an orientation of 'open awareness, curiosity, and acceptance' (Bishop et al., 2005), the latter construct perhaps overlapping intuition quite substantially. Both mindfulness and intuition have been described as key components to creativity, wisdom and well-being. Furthermore, mindfulness is proving to be a powerful component to healing across a wide range of physical and mental conditions (Kabat-Zinn, 2005). So two lines of investigation - one the scientific exploration of creativity and intuition and the other the scientific investigation of mindfulness and its role in well-being, seem to be converging. And their point of convergence reflects our society's emerging need to investigate, experience, and understand our inner landscape - the intuitive mind - and its convergence with the external landscape (i.e. merging of intuition and reason).

A true balance of rational and intuitive processes of discovery is likely to generate exceptional advances in our understanding of biology, epigenetic phenomenon, and healing mechanisms. Jonas Salk in his book, Anatomy of Reality: Merging of Intutition and Reason, described the importance of his own first person experience as crucial to his scientific discoveries.... "early in my life I would imagine myself in the position of the object in which I was interested. Later, when I became a scientist, I would picture myself as a virus, or a cancer cell, for example, and try to sense what it would be like to be either....". Nowhere may this integration be more relevant than in the study of human behavior and its application to the treatment and prevention of mental illness, since brain and mind play such a prominent role.

Our biomedical culture leaves little room for cultivating intuition or inner reflection today. We have become a scientific culture with a single material reductionist view - one that does not allow for a role of the individual in the process. "The reductionist program that dominates current work in the philosophy of mind is completely misguided, because it is based on the groundless assumption that a particular conception of objective reality is exhaustive of what there is. The true principles underlying it will be discovered, if at all, only by a more direct approach" Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere. The direct approach described by Nagel is likely the intuitive, first person experience, a necessary expansion to the material reductionist framework, and likely to play an important role in health and healing. The next wave of prevention, health promotion tools, and exceptional scientific discoveries, likely depend not only on the extensive application of 'reason' in discoveries of genetics, neuroscience, and immunology, but on our individual depth of inner discovery, self-awareness and individual choice in the epigenesis of health and well-being. Jonas Salk wrote that "we may also see the effect of time and circumstances upon us and become conscious of the alternatives from which we may choose, and the consequences thereof...." Survival of the Wisest.

Creating balance of the rational and intuitive mind begins by balancing the scientist, student, teacher, and clinician. Imbalance has taken on new meaning in the 21st century - information overload, pagers, beepers, email, blackberrys - life is a constant 'filling up' of more and more and more. Time has expanded in our minds to a point where we no longer know what is physically possible to accomplish in circumscribed periods of time and so we are left with double-booked schedules, back-to-back meetings, projects initiated and never completed, and a feeling of 'about to fall into the black hole of chaos'. We are actually 'losing it' when it comes to taking care of ourselves. Some of us squeeze in the daily exercise routine or even the infrequent lunch for leisure but we rarely take both feet off the treadmill of going, going, going, in our busy lives. But we all want to stop. Pause. Breath. And maybe regain a moment of the inspiration, passion, creativity, and compassion that brought us into our various careers. But as the white rabbit to said to Alice, "I'm late, I'm late, for a very important date. No time to say hello, goodbye, I'm late, I'm late, I'm late." We don't think we have time to say hello or goodbye to one another, or pause before we talk with a patient, or pause before we see a research subject, or before a meeting, or seeing a student, or teaching a class. And for most of us, the treadmill continues after the work ends - we rush home to be the parent we know we can be - actively involved in our children lives, an organized homemaker, someone who has it 'all together'. But face it, we don't.

As we expand our knowledge of technology, genetics, neuroscience, and medicine, we seem to move further and further away from the intuitive mind, the process of inner discovery, a process that gives one space, time, tools actively reconnect with the creative and compassionate scientists and clinicians with whom patients can achieve real healing. Real healing will begin when we reopen ourselves to this inner discovery and couple it with the vast external discovery currently in progress. Through the integration of rational and intuitive thought, wellness arises. Individuals develop a stronger sense of creativity that leads to new connections (with one another, nature, and the world). These connections result in a deep feeling of connectedness, a step out of one's self centered world, and then a deeper sense of compassion and caring for the world.