Intuition wins Nobel prizes

September 13, 1996

Aisling Irwin and Juliet Vickery report from the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Birmingham.

"Armchair" thought - the type that leads to Nobel prizes - has been choked out of academic life, an educationist claimed this week. Yet new studies are showing that problems can often be solved in a more imaginative way if they are left for a while to the unconscious.

And a study of Nobel laureates has found that the prize-winners set great store by intuitive thought, said Guy Claxton, visiting professor in the school of education at Bristol University.

Professor Claxton said that research is revealing that the unconscious is not just the Freudian one, where "passions and repressed traumas seethe". There is also an intelligent side to the unconscious, which can "learn useful information which is of a degree of subtlety or complexity greater than normal conscious ways of learning can even grasp".

A study by American researchers tested how well people remembered photographs of strangers. Subjects were asked to look at a group of photographs and describe a few of them. The following day, when asked to pick out the photographs they remembered, they did not pick out the photographs they had described but remembered others far more vividly.

More complex studies of people who think they are making random guesses at the solution to a problem show that they are in fact gradually homing in on the right answer. Professor Claxton said that this demonstrated that the unconscious was working on the problem without the conscious realising it.

He said that academia has eliminated the deliberative stage of thought and replaced it with too much analytical thought. "What is important is learning to balance it with a mode that is more passive and receptive." In academia, "the larger the incentives or the more you stress people the more you get dull responses", he said.

To encourage people to work with their intuitions, he said, lecturers should ask students to imagine the solutions to problems before they begin a more analytical approach. They should also require students to write some of their essays in a more poetic way.

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