The Incredible Power of the Intuitive Brain—And How to Master It

"What is going on here?!"

Thought the head doctor of Vienna General Hospital in 1846. He had a major crisis on his hands as 1 in 6 women were dying of childbed fever. [1]

The risk of death was so bad, in fact, that women were choosing to give birth at home rather than going to his hospital–a practice not seen the middle-ages.

This was an embarrassment to him and all he had worked for, so he was determined to find the root of this problem.

He and the rest of the doctors on staff began brainstorming what could be the cause of the disease. Many had theories such as the poor diets of women in Vienna, as well as the problems with the ventilation ducts in the department.

But a doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis proposed a completely radical theory.

He noticed that all of the doctors that were involved in the birthing process were also doing separate research on dead bodies. 

This was before the discovery of germs, so these doctors didn't sanitize their materials, use gloves, or wash their hands between working on dead bodies and delivering babies. So they unknowingly carried all of the diseases with them!

When he made this discovery, Semmelweis immediately began requiring that doctors in his department wash their hands before and after performing medical procedures.

After some time had passed, Semmelweis felt that he had enough evidence to bring to the head of Vienna General and make the hand washing procedures required hospital-wide.

After listening to Semmelweis' theory and evidence, the head doctor not only refused to make the hand washing rules a hospital-wide practice, he forbid the doctors in Semmelweis' department from adhering to them!

He simply could not fathom that the doctors were the ones that were killing their patients. So he ignored Semmelweis, and attributed the disease to the ventilation system. Which, of course, led to more deaths and no progress.


Most of you will look down on the head of Vienna General Hospital–and for good reason.

How dare he refuse the evidence and allow innocent women to die!

But the question is…was he just an arrogant or immoral person? Or is it possible that you and I are just as likely to ignore evidence that we don't want to accept either?

Let’s try to understand why this doctor made this decision.

Assuming this man joined the medical field with the purpose of saving lives, we can speculate that he believed his work was doing good for mankind. And at that point in his career, he probably had a lot of evidence supporting the positive impact he had on Vienna. 

He likely saved many people, trained many doctors, and helped create advances in medicine.

So with every year of work, he reinforced this message to his cerebellum or “intuitive brain.”

The intuitive brain is responsible for our ability to ride a bike, for our survival instinct, and for our deeply held beliefs about politics, religion, and principles.

In his book The Righteous Mind, University of Virginia professor Jonathan Haidt refers to this part of our brain as “the elephant” because it is powerful, difficult to control, and has a great memory. [2]

When you make a snap judgment about someone you meet—good or bad—this is your elephant using years of stored memories of inter-personal relationships to help you understand how you should act towards this person.

The true role of rationality

By the time Vienna general was having issues with childbed fever, the head doctor already had years of his elephant believing that doctors are the good guys.

Doctors save lives—they don’t put them in danger.

So when Semmelweis presented his evidence and theory, he made the same snap judgments about it that you would make when hearing evidence contrary to your religious or political beliefs. [3]

Let’s examine why this happens…

When we are presented evidence for or against our beliefs, we think it is communicated to our cerebrum–the conscious, “rational brain.”

Then we believe our rational brain takes the role of a “scientist.” 

It searches for the truth, examines the evidence, and makes a well-informed decision.  The scientist then informs the elephant about what our beliefs and ideas should be based on the evidence.

What we believe:

However, it is actually the opposite. It is the intuitive brain that determines our beliefs, and our rational brain acts much more like a “lawyer.” It rationalizes why we made our judgments, rather than trying to understand the evidence.

What really happens:

This is seen perfectly with the head of Vienna General.

When Semmelweis presented the evidence, he didn’t try to understand it and form a judgment based upon his understanding. He saw the evidence, formed an intuitive judgment that it can't be right, then tried to rationalize his judgment by blaming the ventilation system.

HOW snap judgments influence decisions

We make subconscious, intuitive judgments about almost everything around us.

When you saw the title of this article, you made an intuitive judgment about reading it. When you woke up this morning, you made an intuitive judgment about hitting "the snooze."

When you read words like:





Your elephant reacts to each of those words through years of memories and associations with what they really mean.

And based on the reaction your elephant takes to a particular word, your lawyer will be more likely to see the rest of the sentence through a different lens. This is called “Affective Priming” and it has huge implications for how we see the world, and each other. 

In a very popular experiment, researchers showed groups of words like those below and had participants categorize only the second word as either good or bad:





Because participants had to respond quickly, it was difficult to categorize the words like sunshine and cancer in the proper category. The elephant was heading in the wrong direction, and the lawyer had to scramble to find the right evidence. [4]

The same experiment has been conducted to test various intuitive prejudices against race, age, and social group. You can take it for yourself by clicking here.

Of course, your willpower is not immune to this power of the elephant.

When faced with the decision to work on your goals, if your elephant starts heading too far down the path to procrastination, the rational part of your brain will turn into a lawyer seeking justification for putting that work off.


So how do you make the best decision and get your elephant going in the right direction?

When I learned about this phenomenon, I immediately believed that if you teach people “how to think” like we do in our top colleges and universities, that will train them to become scientists, rather than lawyers.

Once again, the opposite is true.

The more educated someone is, the more likely they are to act like the head of Vienna General. Even though their rational brain is stronger, it isn’t the scientist that sees the benefits, it’s the lawyer. [5]

Rather than being better at understanding the evidence, most well-educated people are simply better at rationalizing their judgments. The best debaters aren't those who are best at finding the truth, but those who are best at arguing.

This shows us that we shouldn't focus on turning our lawyers into scientists, we should focus on taming our elephants.

Here are three things you can do to gain more control over your elephant:


The first step towards taming your elephant is to simply be aware that it exists.

Understand that you will be powerfully motivated to favor justification over understanding when forming your decisions. Those decisions could be as large as your beliefs, or as small as your trip to the gym. Regardless of the decision or implications, your elephant will take the lead.

So take a moment of self-awareness to recognize when this happens, and simply ask why? Why do you think your elephant is taking you in this direction? What intuitions is it basing that decision on? Is it really justified?

Being mindful and curious in these moments will shift power from your elephant to your scientist.


The more chances you get to have those moments of self-awareness, the more you will understand your elephant.

The next step is to learn how to communicate with it.

Understand where your intuitions are likely to take you, and come up with ways you can motivate your elephant to make the right decisions.

Be careful to remain curious of your elephant in this step, not judgmental. It is very easy to blame yourself for why you feel a certain way, but that will only shift power back to your elephant.

This happens me all the time. As an introvert, my elephant will lead me away from attending events, giving talks, etc. And even though I’m aware of this, it's really easy to blame myself for being shy, rather than to be curious about what I'm really trying to avoid.

By remaining curious, it helps me see the situation for what it is, not what my elephant is building it up to be.


Once you learn how to communicate with your elephant, then it is time to shape your path ahead time to get the elephant moving in the right direction. [6]

For example, one of the biggest struggles I have with my elephant is writing every day.

Oftentimes I sit down in my desk, begin answering emails, checking some marketing numbers, and when it's time to start writing, my elephant is doing everything it can to distract me. Then I can feel my scientist turn into a lawyer trying to justify putting my writing off.

So I use a method called the nothing alternative. Beginning at 8 o'clock, I can either write or do nothing. I can stare out the window or pace around the room, but I cannot do any other positive work until I have written at least 500 words.

This subtle change in my path tames my elephant through sheer boredom. 


Many of us would believe the head of Vienna General Hospital is sadistic for blatantly ignoring the evidence and costing the lives of countless innocent women. But, unfortunately, his decision is natural and human. We are not rational–we are intuitive and judgmental.

Think of your intuitive brain as an elephant. It is powerful, hard to control, and has years of stored memories that shape your judgment. And too often we use our rational brain as a lawyer to justify the elephant, rather than as a scientist to inform it.

You can break out of this pattern by being self-aware of when your elephant takes over, learning how to communicate with it, and shaping the right path ahead of time to make the best decisions.

You cannot silence your elephant–but you can learn how to tame it.