Janice is sitting on the loveseat in my office. The sun slants through the Venetian blinds behind her, casting a warm glow that looks like an aura around her. She is a beautiful woman. This is just a fact.

“I was talking at a meeting at work. I really think the policy they’re considering is dangerous. I was ticking off point after point for some of the unintended consequences I see in the distance, and it’s like . . . like they weren’t even listening to me.”

. . . Because they all think I’m just a dumb blonde, are the words in my head that spilled into my awareness at the end of her sentence.

Where did these words come from? What do they mean? What do I do with them?

For many years in my career as a therapist I noted that the words popped up, and filed them away. Maybe somehow at some later point I’d understand their place.

Kimber is draped across the same loveseat. I’m absorbed in her posture, her rhythm, her tone of voice. “I want to go on vacation next month, but my boss told me that she really needs all hands on deck. She said I need to hang in there just another month.”

The word “boss” feels electric to me. It’s hot and bright. Where does that feeling come from? What does it mean? What do I do with it? File it away?

No, I say it out loud. “Boss. Can you talk about that?”

Kimber begins to unwind a long-standing schema that has been at the core of a lot of pain in her life.

Intuition has been the red-headed step-child of psychotherapy since Freud. While he publicly decried the occult, there are private correspondences in which he confessed that he thought that “telepathy” was an important part of his work.

In the world of risk-management and Evidence-Based practice, intuition is scorned. Even so, therapists have admitted in several studies that intuition is an important part of their clinical approach.

The good news for those clinicians is that there is growing research that, if not supporting the use of intuition, is at least legitimizing the existence of the phenomenon. Currently among cognitive psychologists there are two dominant models for what constitutes this phenomenon: the Heuristic model, and the Learning Theory model.

One of the better-known proponents of the Heuristic model is Kahneman. He has suggested that intuition is a quick-and-dirty problem solving strategy. Which variables get considered in this strategy are based on ease of retrieval. Ease of retrieval is highly influenced by emotional valence, which means that intuitive judgments are likely to be highly biased by emotion. Not too reliable, the heuristic camp warns.

The Learning Theory perspective has looked at the question from a different perspective, and has a different opinion on the reliability of intuitive judgments. From this perspective, intuition is the fast implicit processing of past experience and learning. These researchers suggest that “professional intuition,” or a judgment regarding an area of repeated experience and expertise, is often highly accurate.

Many psychoanalytic thinkers have developed an understanding of intuition as a form of unconscious communication. This communication can be explained by direct right-brain-to-right-brain communication, as the neuroscientist Allan Schore suggests, or by the operation of mirror neurons. In either case, the communication involves micro-expressions, or subtle changes in muscle tension and movement, along with para-linguistic aspects of speech such as tone, rate, volume, and prosody of speech.

There is one other theory that appears in the psychoanalytic literature. This is field theory. Field theory comes to us from the world of physics. Matter emits force. We know of two such forces: gravity, and electro-magnetism. The earth has a gravitational field that keeps the moon in orbit; the moon has a gravitational field that affects the tides on earth. The fact is, the force that the moon emits and the force that the earth emits intermingle. So really, both the earth and the moon exist in a force-field that is co-created by and effects both bodies. Some analytic theorists have suggested that this is a good metaphor for what happens in therapy. The existence of a co-created field allows therapist and client to be affected by each other’s unconscious processes and content.

I don’t know which, if any, of these theories is right. Maybe they all are. Maybe intuition is not just one thing. What I do know is that when I allowed myself to bring the words that pop into my head into the therapeutic conversation, when I repeat the “hot” words, or those that pop into my mind in my client’s voice, therapy goes deeper more quickly than it did when I kept these musings to myself.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy