“What should I do?” my mother asked. She had called me because her primary care doctor ran some routine blood tests, and found the hs-CRP, a marker of inflammation in the blood vessels that increases the risk for heart attacks and strokes, extremely elevated. The doctor had recommended cholesterol-lowering drugs, but the cholesterol levels weren’t all that elevated. As an internist myself, I might have recommended the same thing. Or perhaps ordered a slew of other blood tests in search of a source of inflammation. But this time, I did something different, something a younger version of myself never would’ve believed. I said goodbye, sat back, and closed my eyes… waiting… to see if any images would arise. I was giving my analytical mind a rest, and tapping into my intuition.
A Total Skeptic
In my medical training, intuition was never discussed. Evidence-based medicine had long been the standard, and anything beyond empirical data was deemed undependable. Invalid. Quackery. And as a child, I’d grown up in an evangelical community in the heartland of Texas. Such practices were deemed dangerous or cultish. So if I had any “gut feelings” at all, it was to steer clear of any such practices.
I hadn’t known the history of notable scientific discoveries coming by way of intuition, many in the form of dreams. Like Mendeleev, the Russian chemist who invented the periodic table of elements. And Kekulé, a German organic chemist, who discovered that benzene was a ring structure, not a chain. Einstein famously said that intuition is a sacred gift, whereas the rational mind is a faithful servant. Jonas Salk, the inventor of the polio vaccine, had encouraged the use of intuition “to tell the thinking mind where to look next.”
I also hadn’t known that intuition could be nurtured.
What Changed for Me
Fourteen years ago, my health crashed. It started out as an autoimmune thyroid condition, and culminated into debilitating conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome and dysautonomia (a dysfunction of the automatic nervous system that governs vital bodily functions like blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature, and digestion). Housebound for 2 years, I went to specialist after specialist with no answers. Well-meaning friends suggested acupuncture, herbs, osteopathy, saunas, an endless list of supplements. There seemed to be either no options, or an infinite number.
“A what?” I asked, nearly choking on my tea.
“She can scan your body, and might be able to help you.”
Nothing opens your mind like desperation, so I didn’t say no. Still, it took me a year to set up that phone consultation. Knowing how complex my conditions were and thinking I was setting Martine up to fail, I asked her to describe what she “saw” in my body. She did, organ by organ, system by system. She even told me things I couldn’t articulate but had experienced for a long time.
My mind exploded. My entire worldview was changing.
The Other Kind of Knowing
The scientists at the Institute of HeartMath define intuition as “a process by which information normally outside the range of cognitive processes is sensed and perceived in the body and mind as certainty of knowledge.” Intuition, then, might come as a “gut feeling,” a strong hunch, a sudden image or bodily reaction (tingling, goosebumps, or coughing fits), or a dream. What intuition is not: sheer guesswork; wishful, biased, or fearful thinking; or reflexive actions wired as survival skills (which are “instincts”).
It’s generally accepted that the left brain processes linear, concrete, and analytical thoughts, whereas the right brain processes emotions, senses, and images. But I found recent studies from HearthMath suggesting that the heart may in fact receive sensory information before the brain does. In future research, might we discover that the gut and other organs know before the brain, too?
How I Use Intuition in Clinical Medicine
Over the last five years, Martine taught me how to develop my own intuition to hone my clinical judgment. It’s learnable, like any other craft or art. Some are born with natural gifts, but Dr. Judith Orloff, a psychiatrist, an intuitive, and a bestselling author, says the same thing: “Anyone can learn this.”
So when my mother called with her abnormal lab results, I reasoned that using my intuition was low-risk with a high potential gain. As I sat in meditation, an image of my mother’s teeth emerged. “When was your last dentist appointment?” I asked when I called her back. She confessed that her dentist had wanted to pull two rotten teeth, but she’d been reluctant. I suggested she get them taken care of as soon as possible, then follow up with another blood test. A couple of months later, her inflammatory marker was undetectable.
Intuition won’t be accurate 100% of the time. Neither will analytical thinking. But if the advantage of having two eyes is to increase the breadth and depth of our vision, wouldn’t the use of two minds help us see more, too?
In essence, intuition less about being more right than about opening up to what’s more true.
5 Simple Steps to Develop Your Intuition
1. Find a quiet space. Meditate daily if possible. Learning to quiet your thinking mind is the most challenging part of this process. InsightTimer is a free app for your phone that has thousands of guided or music meditations.
2. Carry a small notebook. Pay attention to sensory experiences—what you see, touch, smell, and hear. Note any special experiences in your notebook.
3. Pay attention to your dreams. Record these in your notebook, too. Note patterns, repetitions, symbols, and archetypes, not just the events of the dream. Before sleep, hold a question in your mind and invite your subconscious for revelation through dreams.
4. Tune into your body. Ask yes/no questions and see if your body responds with twinges or goosebumps or other sensations. Over time, you can learn to decipher between reactions to your environment, symptoms of illness, and intuitive signals. The latter tend to be acute and fleeting.
5. Use hindsight. Jot down sensations, events, and images as they happen in real time (in your small notebook!), but use hindsight to discern between intuitions and random thoughts and events.
Be patient. Developing intuition is like learning a new language. It takes time and regular practice.