Intuition, or tacit knowledge, is difficult to measure, so it is often denigrated. A new dissertation in education research from Linköping University in Sweden shows that there is a neurobiological explanation for how experience-based knowledge is created.

“Can’t ‘splain sump’n to somebody who doesn’t understand it”; “my legs think faster than I do” (Swedish alpine skiing champion Ingemar Stenmark). “Skate where the puck´s going, not where it´s been” (Wayne Gretsky).

Lars-Erik Björklund uses these quotations in his dissertation to illustrate what we mean by intuition, tacit knowledge, hands-on knowledge, or practical wisdom. It is based on experience and is something that experts in many fields possess.

“In studies from the 1980s on nurses, it was shown that those who had been in the profession for a long time saw more and made better judgments more quickly. It was referred to as an intuitive ability,” says Lars-Erik Björklund, who devoted his thesis to a review of research in various fields involving this knowledge.

In the 1990s similar studies were done on physicians and business people, with similar results. The fact that people with long experience are often better at what they do, that practice makes perfect, is nothing new. But no good explanations have been put forward as to why this is the case.

A few years ago neuroscientists discovered that the human brain has dual systems for receiving and analyzing sensory impressions, one conscious and one unconscious. In the unconscious, that is the non-declarative system, our sensory impressions are compared with previously stored images. We all have an inner picture book of stored experiences based on what has happened to us previously in life. We also remember the outcome -¬ did it end well or badly? With the aid of these stored sensory impressions, we unconsciously assess the situation at hand and can predict the outcome. This capacity is especially helpful in complex and information-rich situations with a great deal of noise.

The more variations of a situation we have experienced, the richer our picture book will be and the more probable it will be that we recognize the situation at hand.

“It can be a matter of smells, gestures, an ineffable combination of impressions that makes what we call intuition tell us something,” says Lars-Erik Björklund. “We have a memory that needs to be filled up with sensory impressions.”

However, these memories are stored only if they affect us. In other words, for experience to be built up, there must be commitment.

This means, according to Lars-Erik Björklund, that we can never read or calculate our way to all the knowledge and abilities we need in our professional life. Practical experience is indispensable and needs to be revaluated. An uncertified teacher with ten years of experience in the profession can be a much better teacher, assuming that this person is committed to the job, than a newly certified teacher, no matter how knowledgeable he or she is in terms of subject matter knowledge.

He also argues that components involving practice and lab work need to be expanded rather than cut in professional programs for engineers, teachers, and physicians. “We need to see, feel, smell, hear, taste, and experience with our senses. This collection of data can’t be replaced by studying course literature,” he writes.

“Experience is under-evaluated today, and this is perhaps because we haven’t understood this type of tacit knowledge. Now we know, thanks to brain researchers.”

“They (experts) may not be as hungry or energetic as a young recently certified associate, but they have a superior ability to see and judge what should and what can be done,” he writes in his conclusion.

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