[13 Minute Read]

The Powerful Forces of Instinct and Intuition in Creativity | Boy confronting fear of waves | thrivingcreator.com

I didn’t know it at the time, but as I stood thigh-deep in the crashing Atlantic surf, seeds were being planted in me. They were the seeds of understanding how knowledge, skills, instinct, and intuition are not only related, but can eventually become fused for creators who have cultivated mastery of their crafts.

I thought I was merely photographing the story of a little boy overcoming his fear of those waves. And while that is one part of this story, over the coming months I learned that instinct and intuition were a bigger part of it.  I learned that creators are not simply born with such qualities.  They grow to possess them.

This journey begins by investigating instincts and intuition.

What are instinct and intuition?

One definition of these two words looks like this:

In·stinct: “Behavior that is mediated by reactions below the conscious level.” — Merriam-Webster

In·tu·i·tion: “The ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning.” –Google Definitions

These particular definitions show that these words can be synonyms. But I think we get a richer understanding of their meanings by examining the thesaurus entries for them. Unlike the synonyms for instinct, the intuition synonyms include words like clairvoyance, foreknowledge, and foresight.

Detectives are often portrayed as individuals who possess strong instincts and intuition as it pertains to understanding people and their motives.

But what does that mean? It just means that they have abilities to read people without “thinking” – that is, without consciously thinking.

But how does that happen? Do they just enter this world with such innate abilities?

To answer that, let’s consider what Robert Greene in his book, Mastery, says about intuition. This book examines groundbreaking innovators and what their path toward mastery involved. Greene leads us through the lives and traits of creators such as Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein, shedding light on a path toward high-level creativity.

Greene describes how such masters, after years of intense study and practice, obtain the ability to intuitively make creative connections that others were not able to do. He explains how, after 10-to-20 thousand hours of practice, our brains are literally altered. And, “with that much practice and experience, all kinds of connections have been formed in the brain between different forms of knowledge”. He says that masters, “have a sense of how everything interacts organically, and they can intuit patterns or solutions in an instant.”

In a nutshell, as Greene explains, intuition is driven by memory.

As I read Greene’s description of intuition, my mind flashed back to a historic football play that was fueled by intuition.

Intuition lead to Super Bowl history

It was 2009.  And in the most memorable ending to a first half in Super Bowl history, linebacker James Harrison of the Pittsburg Steelers surprised the world.

It wasn’t another vicious tackle that surprised us. No, the 2008 NFL defensive player of the year was well-known for that. It was what he was paid to do. Catching and running with the ball, on the other hand, is not what we, or his team, expect from Harrison.

Harrison’s performance on that last play of the half was astonishing. But what he did is not even the most remarkable part. The most remarkable part was how he did it… or more accurately, how he knew to do what he did.

With 18 seconds left in the first half, the Cardinals offense was poised to take the lead as they lined up two yards away from the end zone. The Steelers’ pass rush had been one-second late getting to Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner the entire first half. So, Steelers Coach Dick LeBeau called an all-out blitz for his defense.

Harrison’s assignment on the play, while his teammates would rush the quarterback, was to cover Cardinals running back Tim Hightower, who was next to Warner in the backfield.

The Powerful Forces of Instinct and Intuition in Creativity | James Harrison lining up | thrivingcreator.com

James Harrison and his assignment on the play

But when Harrison surveyed the offense before the snap, something caught his eye…and sparked his intuition. He noticed the formation of the Cardinal wide receivers on his side of the field. The way that they were stacked close together in this part of the field, next to the end zone, was something he had seen before.

The Powerful Forces of Instinct and Intuition in Creativity | James Harrison noticing a pick formation | thrivingcreator.com

James Harrison noticing a formation which sparks his intuition

In fact, the Steelers had been burned by teams using a similar formation when they were this close to the end zone. The receivers in the play would cross routes, creating a “pick” which would throw-off at least one of the defenders, leaving one of the two receivers wide open for a touchdown.

Harrison made a split-second decision to disregard his assignment on the play. He felt that he knew what the Cardinals were about to do.

So instead of rushing toward the Cardinals backfield, Harrison dropped back into pass coverage.

The Cardinals’ play was designed to be quick. Warner would take the snap from the shotgun and throw the ball almost immediately to wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who would be freed-up by the pick from fellow receiver Larry Fitzgerald. The Cardinals would score a touchdown before the Steelers could react.

As the play began, the Cardinals executed their play exactly as they wanted it to unfold. Except that they didn’t expect James Harrison to predict the exact play right down to the exact throwing lane.

The Powerful Forces of Instinct and Intuition in Creativity | James Harrison dropping back into the passing lane | thrivingcreator.com

James Harrison dropping back into the passing lane

Harrison had positioned himself perfectly. When Warner’s quick pass came, headed straight toward Bolden’s hands, Harrison jumped the route, intercepting the ball on the goal line.

What came next was a mad fury of attempts to tackle Harrison as he relentlessly barreled down the length of the field. No less than 6 Cardinals had a direct shot at tackling him.

But as time expired for the half, Harrison would not be denied a 100-yard interception returned for a touchdown – the longest play in Super Bowl history at that time.

The Powerful Forces of Instinct and Intuition in Creativity | James Harrison scoring | thrivingcreator.com

Harrison scoring. Creative commons licensed (BY-NC-ND 2.0) flickr photo by Sean.

Harrison did not just diagnose the play via its formation.  He also must have intuited that he could position himself for the interception. The Cardinals later admitted that their receivers lined up too close to the middle of the field (closer to Harrison). If they had lined up wider, Harrison probably would not have been able to position himself into the throwing lane.

Foreseeing an opportunity

Like James Harrison showed, sometimes instincts or intuition simply inform us of how to position ourselves to take advantage of something soon-to-come.

While at the beach with my family I spotted this scene and positioned myself for a story I thought might develop.

The Powerful Forces of Instinct and Intuition in Creativity | Foreseeing an opportunity | thrivingcreator.com

And sure enough, positioning ahead of time allowed me to compose and capture an interaction between these two boys that I could not have otherwise.

The Powerful Forces of Instinct and Intuition in Creativity | Positioning paid off | thrivingcreator.com

Make your pathways strong

So far we’ve looked at what instinct and intuition are, what they allow us to do, as well as a basic understanding of how they are obtained. Now it’s time to examine them just a little deeper in order to further demystify them.

Earlier I referred to intuition as being driven by memory. I also conveyed what Greene wrote about spending 10-to-20 thousand hours of practice in order to create connections in our brains, allowing us to intuit solutions in an instant.

But how do those brain connections get formed? And once formed, how is it that our brains take advantage of them?

According to Greene,

“When we take in information of any kind, we store it in mnemonic networks in the brain. The stability and durability of these networks depends on repetition, intensity of experience, and how deeply we pay attention.”

The Powerful Forces of Instinct and Intuition in Creativity | Spider web as a symbol for mnemonic networks in the brain | thrivingcreator.com

Spider web as a symbol for neural networks. Image from Pixabay.

Greene goes on to say,

“According to the model developed by the psychologist Kenneth Bowers, whenever we encounter a problem – a face we need to recognize, a word or phrase we need to recall – mnemonic networks within the brain become activated as the search for the answer is guided along certain pathways. All of this occurs below the level of consciousness. When a particular network is sufficiently activated, we suddenly become conscious of a possible name for the face, or a phrase that might be appropriate. These are low-level forms of intuition that come to us in our everyday life; we cannot reconstruct the steps that went into recognizing a person’s face and remembering their name.”

Now relating this to creative masters, Greene writes,

“People who spend years studying a particular subject or field develop so many of these memory networks and pathways that their brains are constantly searching for and discovering connections between various pieces of information. When confronted with a high-level problem, the search goes in a hundred directions below conscious awareness, guided by an intuitive sense of where the answer might lie. All kinds of networks become activated, ideas and solutions suddenly rising to the surface.”

How do our brains learn?

So far we’ve seen that we store information in networks in our brain. And we’ve seen that practice is paramount for such a network to be formed.

But why is practice and intensity so important to learning?

To answer that, we need to look a little closer at this concept of networks in our brain.

Our brains are comprised of one hundred billion specialty cells called neurons. These neurons process and transmit information via electrical and chemical signals, and rely on being connected to other neurons to form a network. A neural network can in turn process complex information.

The Powerful Forces of Instinct and Intuition in Creativity | Neurons | thrivingcreator.com

Neurons illustration. Creative commons licensed (BY-NC 2.0) flickr illustration by Scott Ingram

The signals passing between neurons occur at junctions called synapses. Our brains have a tremendous number of them. Each of our neurons has on average 7,000 synaptic connections to other neurons.

The interesting thing about synapses is that they are more of a small gap than they are “connections”, as depicted in the following screenshot from this video animation:

The Powerful Forces of Instinct and Intuition in Creativity | Synapse - no activity | thrivingcreator.com

Neural synapse (before activity)

In order for a signal to pass between the neurons, it must “jump” that gap.

Although this gap is small, it is not easy at first for a signal to in fact make the jump. It is analogous to us hiking and encountering a great ravine. When we need to cross it the first time, it will take considerable effort. We would need to throw a rope over the ravine, catching something on the other side… then treacherously pull ourselves over the ravine on the rope. It would be slow.

But once we put the effort into making that first “jump” possible, we could use the infrastructure that we built up from the first pass to make it quicker and easier to cross it the next time. The next time crossing the ravine, we could pass over using the rope that was hanging from before, and this time we could add more ropes, giving us a more robust “bridge”.

Instead of ropes, our synapses rely on sufficient chemical processes and electrical excitability:

The Powerful Forces of Instinct and Intuition in Creativity | Synapse - chemical & electrical process started | thrivingcreator.com

Neural synapse – chemical & electrical processes attempting to jump the gap

And once there is enough of a “connection”, the electrical signal jumps the gap:

The Powerful Forces of Instinct and Intuition in Creativity | Synapse - signal jumping the cleft | thrivingcreator.com

Neural synapse – signal passing over the gap

Practicing leads to “hardwiring”

In his section about an “apprenticeship phase” that masters go through, Greene describes the learning process like this:

“In practicing a skill in the initial stages, something happens neurologically to the brain that is important for you to understand. When you start something new, a large number of neurons in the frontal cortex (the higher, more conscious command area of the brain) are recruited and become active, helping you in the learning process. The brain has to deal with a large amount of new information, and this would be stressful and overwhelming if only a limited part of the brain were used to handle it. The frontal cortex even expands in size in this initial phase, as we focus hard on the task. But once something is repeated often enough, it becomes hardwired and automatic, and the neural pathways for the skill are delegated to other parts of the brain, farther down the cortex.

In the end, an entire network of neurons is developed to remember this single task, which accounts for the fact that we can still ride a bicycle years after we first learned how to do so. If we were to take a look at the frontal cortex of those who have mastered something through repetition, it would be remarkably still and inactive as they performed the skill. All of their brain activity is occurring in areas that are lower down and require much less conscious control.”

Looking back, I see it now

Now that I understand more about our learning processes and how we can obtain the “unconscious abilities” of instincts and intuition, I can see how I have utilized them in my creations.

At the beginning of this story, I explained that I was capturing the story of my son overcoming his fear of ocean waves as they battered onto him. As I think back now to those events, I can easily see the fusion of knowledge, skill, instinct, and intuition as it relates to my photography of him.

On our last evening at the beach, this little boy suddenly decided he was ready to love the surf. There was but one chance to capture his turning point.

There was no time to learn about “looking space”. Or the rule-of-thirds. Or how to level my perspective to his eye-level. Or how to frame his eye level in the vertical space. Or how to set the aperture setting on my camera to minimize depth-of-field.

To get the shot, those concepts, and a hundred others, had to be so hard-wired that they could be executed nearly instantly.

Applying those photography principles had become almost like instinct. But such instincts were not enough. I also needed intuition. Looking at his face a moment before, I think my intuition informed me that he was about to let loose. That intuition gave me the foresight to get the camera into position and my instincts, that is, my years of training, could take over to apply the photographic principles necessary to create the image.

The Powerful Forces of Instinct and Intuition in Creativity | Boy racing toward the surf | thrivingcreator.com

What started out as a story about a boy’s ambivalence toward these rushing waters had suddenly turned to a story of how he loved them.

So I kept shooting.

Next, I wanted to capture a more dramatic feel. Without thinking, I circled around him, placing the setting sun nearly behind him – creating a backlight that is often so effective at eliciting such drama. Continuing to let my instincts work, my hands adjusted the exposure compensation to increase the amount of light that would be captured – allowing some details of his face to be visible despite the backlight.

The final piece was to frame the shot before squeezing the shutter button.

I could have completely silhouetted him, placing the sun directly behind him. But instead, again without thinking, I framed him using the rule of thirds, allowing the sun to balance out his portion of the frame by being on another one-third line.

It all happened in the blink of an eye.

The Powerful Forces of Instinct and Intuition in Creativity | Boy overcame fear of waves - silhouette | thrivingcreator.com

And so it goes with skills that we have mastered. We suddenly can apply a myriad of abilities to create! Those ten-to-twenty thousand hours were like little stepping stones that we needed to climb a staircase of creation.

And the more stones we have, the higher we can climb!

The Powerful Forces of Instinct and Intuition in Creativity | Man looks & contemplates | thrivingcreator.com

How have you seen instincts and intuition at work in your life?


  • David Prenshaw says:

    Interesting perspective on intuition–makes me realize how practice is so important to develop any sort of mastery, whether it be a skill, craft, or a musical instrument! It was neat to see how our brain works in that regard also.

    • Jason Kyle Frank says:

      Thanks David! Yes, the fact that practice is the “secret sauce” is so encouraging because that is something we have such direct control over. So instead of us feeling like intuition is just some mysterious thing that we can hope to attain, we can do the work which will produce it in due time!

  • I want to to thank you for this good read!! I certainly enjoyed every bit of it. I’ve got you book-marked to look at new things you post…