Those thoughts that come out of nowhere - where do they come from?

by John McManamy


"How intuitive are you?" I asked in a poll on my Knowledge is Necessity blog at the beginning of August 2009. Intuition is generally described as "the ability to sense or know immediately without reasoning."

The trait is celebrated in our culture. We’ve all heard stories of the fire-fighter who senses a floor about to collapse or the art expert who spots a fake, and so on. In these situations, our man or woman of the hour is responding to subtle cues outside his or her conscious radar. But these are hardly magic powers - in all cases, our hero is operating with an expert awareness honed by years of experience.

This happens in our daily lives, as well. In traffic, for instance we’re already swerving to avoid a car before we even become aware of the car or the fact that we’re swerving. A lot of this can be attributed to our fight or flight circuitry. It’s not always about flipping into a panic state. Recall, that our limbic and cortical regions are so tightly integrated that it is more helpful to think of them as part of the same processing unit.

In this regard, we are talking about a state of hyper-awareness that allows us to circumvent the tedious bureaucracy of our cortical regions. No waiting, no lines, no filling in forms.

But what I was looking for was more like this: “My thoughts and ideas seem to come out of nowhere.” Or …

”I often read people and situations like a book.” Or …

"I can put two and two together and come up with five.”

These are closer to those “aha!” moments when the mind is perfectly at rest and appears open to novel solutions. Even the hyper-rational, whether it is Newton snoozing under a tree or Sherlock Holmes playing his violin, recognize the value in switching off “thinking” and trusting in the unconscious processes of the brain.

Interesting stuff happens. Back in the eighties, a contributor to a professional journal that I edited wanted to use a pen name. No problem, I replied. I’ll come up with something good. His last name was Westworth, and the article had to do with changing one’s approach to a certain topic.

Hmm, I thought. This is about orientation. Orient literally means east, opposite of west. Interesting. Then I thought no more about it. A couple of days later, I woke up with the name: W.E. Stonier.

Take your time …



Okay, time’s up. Stonier is an anagram of “orients.” Can you spot its opposite? Take a look at how the two initials and the first two letters in the last name combine to spell, “west.” West in opposition to east, implying a shift in thinking, but also west as in preserving part of the author’s name.

As elegant as Newton’s laws of motion, though not nearly as significant. The point is that there is no way I could have come up with a solution as convoluted and Byzantine as this by “thinking.” People who rely on their intuition to make a living say pretty much the same thing.

In a 2009 TED Talk, Elizabeth Gilbert - author of the novel, Eat, Pray, Love - reported that the ancient Greeks believed that creative ideas came from attendant spirits called “daemons.” Socrates credited his wisdom to a daemon who spoke to him from afar. The Romans had the same idea, assigning the name “genius,” to these spirits and moving them to locations inside the walls of the artist’s residence or studio, sort of like Dobby the house elf.




Only during the Renaissance did the idea emerge of certain individuals “being” a genius rather than “having” a genius. But talk to any “genius,” and they will be the first to tell you that they have no clue where their ideas come from. Ms Gilbert related how the poet Ruth Stone would literally feel a poem coming at her over the landscape. When this happened, the poet’s priority shifted to running inside the house and grabbing pencil and paper lest the verses zoom past looking for another poet.

According to Ms Gilbert, the creative process is so demonstrably nonrational as to appear paranormal. Here’s where it gets interesting. In my poll, nearly one in four answered that they were "borderline or full-on psychic, or at least it seems that way." In contrast, less than one in ten responded with, "Sorry, I'm totally rational and logical."

A classic bell curve distribution this is not. I’m guessing that most of us keep pretty quiet about this stuff, especially around our psychiatrists. After all, we are talking about a spectrum where intuition and creativity bleed into the diagnosable.

In her 1998 book A Beautiful Mind, author Sylvia Nassar recounts a colleague asking John Nash - the Princeton mathematician who shared the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economics - how he could believe that extraterrestrials were sending him messages.

"Because," Dr Nash replied, "the ideas that I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously."

Dr Nash's great creative work was done in his early-mid twenties, before his schizophrenia manifested in full. We tend to identify mental illness by severe episodes and breaks with reality, but long lead-in periods typically precede the break. Thus, during his early years, Dr Nash came across as an oddball in a profession that valued oddball thinking.



In many ways, Dr Nash’s behavior paralleled that of another celebrated Princeton resident. According to Nancy Andreasen of the University of Iowa, Albert Einstein was an eccentric with "schizotypal" tendencies. Schizotypy, which can be regarded as occupying the mild end of the schizophrenia spectrum, is classified as a personality disorder characterized by pronounced behavioral quirks and odd beliefs, such as in “clairvoyance, telepathy, or sixth sense.”

But guess what? Creative individuals happen to test high for schizotypal tendencies. Thus, although it is bipolar that is the condition we most associate with creativity, our window into what is going on in the brain is through the schizotypy-schizophrenia spectrum.

Here, we are looking at a fine line between genius and madness, between inspiration and incoherency. You only have to look to Einstein’s family for validation. Albert, our lovable long-haired eccentric who entertained thoughts about riding on a beam of light, came up with relativity. His son, Eduard, spent his adult life in and out of institutions.

One explanation has to do with the "leaky filter," which comes up in the context of “low latent inhibition” (low LLI). Ask a random group of people, for instance, to come up with some alternative ways of using a brick, and you will find the creative and schizotypal (often one and the same) way up there in finding novel uses. The mental process is known as “divergent” thinking, where the brain free-ranges over a limitless realm of possibilities.  

Of particular interest to the researchers is the precuneus, an area folded inside the parietal cortex toward the back of the brain. This region is part of the default mode network (DMN), which is most active during wakeful rest states such as daydreaming. When the brain needs to focus on a task, the precuneus, along with the rest of the DMN, fades into the background. Significantly people with schizophrenia and schizotypy experience difficulty suppressing activity in the precuneus.

As do those with creative tendencies. On one hand, we have more stimuli to work with, which is to our advantage. On the other, we can get easily overwhelmed. In this regard, all that is standing between sanity and madness is our rational capabilities.

This includes executive function, which involves the brain’s ability to process information in real time and respond accordingly. People with schizophrenia face major challenges in this department, as do those of us contending with stress.

Having an above average IQ also helps. Studies have failed to find a correlation between high IQ and genius, but “high enough” - in the 120 range - appears to offer evidence of a brain capable of performing its basic cognitive tasks.

Once again, we’re talking about highly integrated brain circuitry, in this case, the daydreaming parts of the brain working as one with the thinking parts. Einstein had this going for him. So, for a little while, did John Nash. Then he didn’t.

The best ally, then, of the intuitive mind is the rational mind. Intuition is not to be confused with infallible wisdom. Our intuitive minds may come to stunning conclusions, but we need to avoid jumping to conclusions. Often, our intuition is just plain wrong. Our rational mind is there for a reason.  

See also:

Non-linear Thinking
Madly Creative
Altered States

Revised June 29, 2016


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