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Scientific American

The Captain Kirk Principle

published December 2002 | Comments Off
Intuition is the key to knowing
without knowing how you know
magazine cover

Stardate: 1672.1. Earthdate: October 6, 1966. Star Trek, Episode 5, “The Enemy Within.”

Captain James T. Kirk has just beamed up from planet Alpha 177, where magnetic anomalies have caused the transporter to malfunction, splitting Kirk into two beings. One is cool and rational. The other is impulsive and irrational. Rational Kirk must make a command decision to save the crew, but he is paralyzed with indecision, bemoaning to Dr. McCoy: “I can’t survive without him. I don’t want to take him back. He’s like an animal — a thoughtless, brutal animal. And yet it’s me!”

This psychological battle between intellect and intuition was played out in almost every episode of Star Trek in the characters of the ultrarational Mr. Spock and the hyperemotional Dr. McCoy, with Captain Kirk as the near perfect synthesis of both. Thus, I call this balance the Captain Kirk Principle: intellect is driven by intuition, intuition is directed by intellect.

For most scientists, intuition is the bête noire of a rational life, the enemy within to beam away faster than a phaser on overload. Yet the Captain Kirk Principle is now finding support from a rich emerging field of scientific inquiry brilliantly summarized by Hope College psychologist David G. Myers in his book Intuition: Its Powers and Perils (Yale University Press, 2002). I confess to having been skeptical when I first picked up the book, but as Myers demonstrates through numerous well-replicated experiments, intuition—“our capacity for direct knowledge, for immediate insight without observation or reason” — is as much a component of our thinking as analytical logic.

Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal of Harvard University, for example, discovered that evaluations of teachers by students who saw a mere 30-second video of the teacher were remarkably akin to those of students who had taken the course.

Even three two-second video clips of the instructor yielded a striking 0.72 correlation with the course students’ evaluations.
Research consistently shows how so-called unattended stimuli can subtly affect us. At the University of Southern California, Moshe Bar and Irving Biederman flashed emotionally positive images (kitten, romantic couple) or negative scenes (werewolf, corpse) for 47 milliseconds immediately before subjects viewed slides of people. Although subjects reported seeing only a flash of light for the initial emotionally charged pictures, they gave more positive ratings to people whose photographs had been associated with the positive ones — so something registered.

Intuition is not subliminal perception; it is subtle perception and learning — knowing without knowing that you know. Chess masters often “know” the right move to make even if they cannot articulate how they know it. People who are highly skilled in identifying “micromomentary” facial expressions are also more accurate in judging lying. In testing college students, psychiatrists, polygraphists, court judges, police officers and Secret Service agents on their ability to detect lies, only the agents, trained to look for subtle cues, scored above chance.

Most of us are not good at lie detection, because we rely too heavily on what people say rather than on what they do. Subjects with damage to the brain that renders them less attentive to speech are more accurate at detecting lies, such as aphasic stroke victims, who were able to identify liars 73 percent of the time when focusing on facial expressions. (Nonaphasic subjects did no better than chance.) We may even be hardwired for intuitive thinking: damage to parts of the frontal lobe and amygdala (the fear center) will prevent someone from understanding relationships or detecting cheating, particularly in social contracts, even if he or she is otherwise cognitively normal.

Although in science we eschew intuition because of its many perils (also noted by Myers), we’d do well to remember the Captain Kirk Principle, that intellect and intuition are complementary, not competitive. Without intellect, our intuition may drive us unchecked into emotional chaos. Without intuition, we risk failing to resolve complex social dynamics and moral dilemmas.

As Dr. McCoy explained to Kirk: “We all have our darker side — we need it! It’s half of what we are. It’s not really ugly, it’s human. Your strength of command lies mostly in him.”

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