Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Role of Intuition in Evidence-Based Decision Making

Over a year and a half ago, I had the privilege of being one of the first of twelve westerners to trek into the sacred mountains of Sikkim via a specific route.  The trekking plan involved taking three airplanes, plus two days of driving to meet Lepcha tribe members in their native region.  With a team of 90 porters, many of whom were Lepcha, we journeyed for 14 days along the path of the Buddhist guru, Padmasambhava, toward Mount Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world. 

My intention for this journey was to investigate the role of intuition in evidence-based decision making.  Having spent the first half of my life trying to evaluate everything that moved, I realized that leaders would often ignore what I considered to be “perfectly good data” and make decisions from other unknown sources.  Some of those other types of decisions seemed to move the organizational goals forward and others left a wake of human devastation.  Since leaders rarely admitted to making organizational decisions based on emotions, but rather claimed their decisions were based on intuition, I decided to explore this thing called “intuition” first hand by journeying to a region with little exposure to Western decision-making philosophy.

Invited along on this journey by the trek leader Dr. Jeff Salz, a former San Diego State professor, current cultural anthropologist, and avid adventure educator, along with his former graduate student now living in India, Dr. Ankit Sood, the region of Sikkim was perfect to explore the perspectives of intuition from the Lepcha tribe viewpoint. The origins of the Lepcha tribe are still unknown.  While many scholars believe them to be from Tibet, the Lepchas believe they came from the mountains in the Sikkim region and that they didn’t migrate from anywhere else.  The Lepchas are deeply connected to the land, the plants and trees, their culture, their spiritual practices, and Tibetan Buddhism. 

Having spent a few short days in one of their villages – which was our place to prepare for our journey on foot - we witnessed their relationship with the earth.  Utilizing the skills of Ankit and Jeff, along with three other Porter team leaders who served as translators, I began to ask the questions of how decisions were made for their livelihood.  Their responses led me to believe that it was as if the dirt, trees, rocks, water, and plants spoke to them directly as they moved in harmony with cultivating the foods we would eat. Their relationship with animals however, did not appear to be as deeply cultivated as they had, in essence, wiped out all the types of animals their beliefs would allow them to eat.  They believed the animals would return.  When we explained to them that there was no logical reason the animals would return, they simply laughed at us.  Clearly, I was missing something…

So I dove a little deeper and asked whether the teachings of Padmasambhava guided them in their decision-making processes or whether evidence did.   The translators chose various ways to communicate my question and each time, each member of the Lepcha tribe who was invited to respond would laugh; I mean it was a belly-roll kind of laugh.  They were too kind, too loving, too open-hearted in their laughter for me to feel mocked.  They just simply thought it was a silly question as from their experience; there was no discernment between evidence and spirit, evidence and intuition, experience and sensing.  To them, it was all integrated.  But I couldn’t understand, if it was integrated, why was their animal food source wiped out and whey did they think it would be replenished?  That wasn’t logical to me. 

Accompanied by the Lepchas and still confused, we began the journey on the sacred path that Padmasambhava walked – the guru who brought Buddhism to Sikkim from Tibet over Mount Kangchenjunga.  What was so compelling about studying the role of intuition in evidence-based decision making while making a trek through sacred land with the people who lived in harmony with the land was that there had been a significant earthquake a year prior to our journey that had shifted the landscape significantly.  We were walking a path, where one year prior, a devastating earthquake had completely covered a village and caused nearly all of the Lepchas to move out of the valley in which we would be trekking.  To further complicate matters, another earthquake had occurred a month prior to our journey making the “path” unidentifiable in many locations and extremely dangerous to walk.  Evidence would have suggested to us that it was unwise to make this journey.  Emotions arising from all of us told us we had to make this journey. 

I, at the time, had no idea what role intuition was playing for my evidence-based brain was signaling to me – turn back – do not move past go – yes, because of the earthquake damaged route and because the carefully researched, purchased, and packed back-pack that I had checked through baggage claim had never arrived.  I was trekking with borrowed equipment, outerwear, underwear, and provisions from my dear team trek-mates, which left them short of anything “extra.”  What did seem odd to all of us is that while my backpack never showed up, for some reason, rather than checking my hiking boots, I wore them on the plane and had an extra pair of hiking socks and liners packed in my daypack that I had also taken with me on the plane.  Was that a decision I had made based on intuition?

In the days that followed, even though my questioning would continue to illicit laughter from each Lepcha member of our team, I would witness time and time again how something inside the Lepchas would literally send them leaping across a cavern to literally grab one of us just as we were stepping on a rock that gave way or reaching for a hand hold that wouldn’t “hold.”  The land was so unstable from the recent earthquake that we couldn’t even find ground to set up anchors and rope in together – a common practice when trekking in the Himalayas.  Our lives were completely in the hands of the 90-member team we would affectionately come to call “leaping Lepchas.” Time and time again, they would just sense when we were about to step onto a place where we shouldn’t step and they would be there before we began to fall with a hand reaching out or several hands – whatever it took.  It was amazing to me.

In addition, along the journey, there were several places that were considered sacred to the Lepchas and they stopped to meditate or make offerings from their provisions to the mountain, the water, the rocks, the soil, or the plants that were offering us food to eat along the way.  At first, when I would notice the Lepchas pausing to drop their heavy loads to pray or meditate, I would stop, observe, take notes, photographs, ask questions, and basically try to figure out what was going on even after Jeff and Ankit had already given me a thorough explanation and other members of our team who were experts in Tibetan Buddhism would explain the rituals.  After a couple of days, when there didn’t seem to be any new information to record – after all, all they were “doing” was sitting and breathing with occasional bows, lighting of incense, offerings, and chants - I dropped my pack and joined in the experience.  I felt intense emotion arise in my body each time I participated in the ceremonies.  I stopped taking notes.  I stopped asking questions.  I simply began to be with the experience of whatever was happening.  And I experienced so much happiness, that the Lepcha porters nicknamed me a name in their language that translates to “happy one.”

The more I felt that I was with the actual experience of feeling the soil beneath my feet or the rock in my hand or the rain falling on my face, the more sensations I could feel inside of me and I had nothing to write because I couldn’t describe what I was feeling.  I didn’t feel that my brain had turned off or that my reasoning ability had left me, rather, the more I questioned it and analyzed it, the less I was aware of what I was experiencing in the moment. So, I decided to become my own experiment. I began to stop and pause before stepping when I felt that the ground might be unstable, not because it may have looked unstable.  I began to step off the path even when the path looked OK.  I began – at least I felt I did - to move in harmony with a sensing of the land as opposed to a constant analyzing of what I saw and thought about it all.  And all the time, I simply observed everything around me – it was as if I had been earing some sort of shades and earplugs and thick clothing that had previously dampened all my senses – and now had been released.

I came off that trail with my trek mates and our porter team with more questions and no answers.  My trek mates shared their vast wisdom with me and I witnessed their experiences along with my own.  I had just had the privilege to see this thing called intuition in action, I had taken in the wisdom of my trek mates, but I was not able to explain just how it worked or how I could readily access it now that we were moving back toward the city, back toward our busy lives.

A year and half later, working with neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists, amazing students and colleagues at San Diego State University, and the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute team (, I have a summary of my conclusions to share.  For our personal health and well-being and for the health and well-being of our planet, we need to train ourselves and our leaders to integrate their intuition and emotion in with evidence in order to more fully inform our decisions.  This may not sound profound.  You may have already known this and if you did, good on you.  I trust you are practicing this. But if you didn’t, I would like to share from a neurological perspective why this is important and how it can come about.

From what we understand from neuroscience and psychology, the basal ganglia is the part of our brain that is surrounded by the limbic system – the emotional center of the brain - and they both reside below our cortical layer.  The basal ganglia is associated with our selections of action.  In essence, this part of our brain helps to determine which action to take, particularly when there are several possibilities from which to choose.  And it does so by observing, in essence, the consequences of the decisions we have made in the past and storing them as our life’s wisdom rules.  Because the basal ganglia is not connected with the verbal processing part of the brain, it communicates these life rules as feelings or sensations.  Furthermore, the basal ganglia, has a strong connection to the cerebral cortex, where our analytical reasoning is carried out, as well as the thalamus.  The thalamus is understood to regulate consciousness (self-awareness) and alertness (attention/focus/awareness). 

Daniel Goleman, emotional intelligence guru, calls the basal ganglia the wisdom center of the brain, as it is where our life’s accumulated wisdom is stored.  It is possible that this wisdom center – with its intense connection to the thalamus where we see self-awareness processed is helpful in our discerning who we are. Or it is possible that our alertness to who we are allows us to access the wisdom center.  (I don’t know – it is a chicken or the egg kind of thing).  What seems to be true, however, is that if we don’t access this base brain processor in times of decision-making, we lose out on a lot of information that could be, well… really helpful.  And if we are not alert and self-aware, it is likely we can’t access the wisdom center - the possible source of intuition - as readily as we may like to do so or as readily as would be beneficial to making more “productive” choices.

How do we access this part of the brain?  In order to understand how to access this part of the brain, we need to learn a little but more about the brain.

The limbic system, which surrounds the basal ganglia, is, as previously mentioned, the emotional center of the brain.  This is where the amygdala is located, known for its instinctive fight or flight reactivity.  The same kind of intense reactivity can also occur during extreme experiences of happiness.  When the limbic system becomes activated by intense experiences of emotions, we are likely to make decisions based primarily on emotions, if we don’t choose to regulate our emotions by engaging the pre-frontal cortex where executive reasoning resides.  The challenge then becomes, how do we know if the sensation or the feeling we are experiencing is as a result of an emotional reaction or as a result of our wisdom center?  I have no idea as to the answer.  That is why emotional regulation is important; note that I am referring to emotional regulation, not emotional suppression.

How do we regulate our emotions so that we can actually engage the pre-frontal cortex to leverage analytical reasoning while still being aware of the wisdom they may be conveying?  The same way we gain access to the wisdom center - by practicing stillness through seated focused breathing and by nurturing body awareness through focused breathing and focused movement.  In essence, our ability to increase our awareness of a bodily sensation or emotion is key to our ability to integrate all these aspects of decision-making.   Our ability to down regulate an intensely activated amygdala (emotional center) and up-regulate our pre-frontal cortex (analytical reasoning and executive function center) appears to be correlated with the number of hours we engage in focused breathing (Holzel, 2011; Lazar, 2005).  Furthermore, when we are able to practice such focus on our breath, a heightened awareness of our experience arises.  In essence, we begin to simply become aware of the present moment experience and all the wisdom that is arising from within it because we are not stuck ruminating over ideas in our head which leads to losing touch with the wisdom the arises in the present moment perhaps from the wisdom center deep within.

On the trek, I noticed several ways that I made decisions.  There were sometimes when I was fully engaged in analytical reasoning (pre-frontal cortex activation), so much so that I wasn’t aware of where I was stepping or how my body was feeling. I was consumed with scanning the environment, using my limited mountaineering knowledge, and analyzing the situation trying to figure out the fastest way to get to the next planned camp site safely or before I was completely soaked to the bone by the rain or snow.

There were other times, that I was so awe-struck by the beauty of the land - moved deeply by emotion - that I had to simply stop and stare in wonder.  I would be consumed with drinking in the sun and the smell, the sounds and experiencing such intense gratitude to be in this beautiful pristine place that I would begin to sob and I had no idea why.  All I knew is that I didn’t want to move forward; I just wanted to be with this experience.  My trek mates had to remind me to actually begin hiking again for there was a specific place we needed to set up camp before it got too late into the day.

There were fewer times, when I attempted to role model what I observed in the Lepchas and in some of my trek mates where I was intentionally paying attention to what I was sensing and to what I was thinking.  In these instances, I became aware in each moment of what I was experiencing, how I was experiencing it, and feeling like I was deeply connected to the experience.  It was as if I was meta-aware of everything as it arose and not clinging to any of it, just simply experiencing it for what it was and what it wasn’t and I would move along the unseen path in that manner.

Many of us are likely in touch with either our analytical reasoning portion of our brain or our emotional centers of our brain.  The stored wisdom portion of our brain may be elusive or if we feel as if we are tapping into this wisdom center – this seemingly center of intuition - we may not be aware of it. For example, I had no idea why I wore my hiking boots on the plane instead of the comfy shoes I normally wear on international flights.  And I had no idea why I had an extra pair of hiking socks in my day-pack as I had planned to re-pack everything at our base camp when my back pack actually arrived.  I just made these decisions.

So, our challenge is to become more aware of how we make decisions and nurture the aspects of us that may need nurturing so that our decisions can become fully informed by our emotions, by our analytical reasoning abilities, and by our intuition.  How do we do that?  Perhaps a little more science may help guide the way.

Bechara, Demasio, Tranel, and Damasio conducted a study in 1997 where they invited participants to draw playing cards from four decks of cards simultaneously – two decks were blue and two decks were red.  The point of this study was to determine when and how participants would recognize that the red decks were the losing decks where with each card drawn, the participant may win big money but eventually would result in losing big money so ultimately, this was the pile where the participants would lose money regardless of how long they played or how many cards drawn.  The blue decks were the ones where the amount of money won was smaller, as were the amount of dollars lost, so this deck was designed to allow participants to win money.  Using instruments to measure anticipatory skin conducted responses such as sweaty palms, the researchers found that the participants who did not have pre-frontal cortex damage or decision-making defects began to experience sweaty palms as they drew from the red decks of cards as quickly as drawing the 10th card.   By card 50, the participants self-reported that they had a “hunch” or an intuitive thought about which card decks may be the losing deck and which not.  And by card 80, they self-reported that they had figured it out and what they had figured out about which deck was the wining deck and which was the losing deck was correct.  

This study illustrates that we do have a wisdom center, such as the basal ganglia, that gives our body important sensing information about which decision to make.  However, if we are not aware of that sensory information, we can not integrate it into our language processor – which signals to us that we do indeed have a hunch about the correct decision.  Furthermore, if we are not aware of those sensations, we are not able to integrate them into our prefrontal cortex, which allows us to figure out the correct decision.

Taking this study example back to our trek in Sikkim, before I was aware that the ground was going to give way underneath my feet while trekking through Sikkim, my basal ganglia most likely knew it.  If I would have trained myself in awareness, I might have been able to notice prior to the ground giving way that I shouldn’t step there – even if logically it looked like I could.  And most likely the basal ganglia in the Lepchas knew it.  The Lepchas appeared to be more in tune with that sense of knowing, so much so that they could literally leap into action before I even become aware that the ground was giving way beneath my feet.  And since, as we mentioned, the basal ganglia is not associated with the language processing part of the brain, the Lepchas couldn’t explain to me how they did what they did.  Interestingly, the word Lepcha, in Nepalese, means “inarticulate speech.”  This was once considered to be a derogatory name, however, after having witnessed the Lepcha’s connection with the part of the brain that serves as their wisdom center and seeing how they could also not articulate the integration of this wisdom center into their choice-making, I feel a deeper sense of respect for their name and their laughter at my questions.

To the Lepchas, asking them to discern the role of intuition in decision-making is like asking someone to describe how they feel about heir newborn baby without using any words that describe emotion.  It seems ridiculous.   However, in our culture, we often tend to separate decision-making made on evidence, with that made on emotion, and that which is made on something else that appears to be indescribable.  Rather, if we invite in the integration of emotion through awareness of emotion and its regulation, and the analyzing of evidence we are examining, along with the ability to tap into our intuition – the wisdom that arises from a meta-awareness of the moment, we will likely make much more informed decisions.  And in so doing, no doubt we will deepen the wealth of wisdom stored in the various places within our brain and perhaps we will strengthen compassion and peace within our organizations as we move along our path to meeting our organization’s goals.

Marilee Bresciani Ludvik, Ph.D. is Professor of Postsecondary Educational Leadership at San Diego State University.

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