I don’t write often on trusting one’s intuition for making health care decisions. I should do it more often. Here’s why:
A few years ago I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink — an analysis of how we use our unconscious, our intuition, and how accurate it turns out to be. At the time I remember feeling almost vindicated — which I’ll explain more about in a minute.
Cited in Blink was a German social psychologist, Dr. Gerd Gigerenzer, who has done studies on intuitive thinking on ordinary people like you and me. I found an article in this morning’s New York Times about a book Dr. Gigerenzer has now written called, Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious.
In his book, Dr. Gigerenzer offers a basis for gut feelings — those made-in-a-flash decisions or judgments we make based on…. what? Often we don’t know. Dr. Gigerenzer suggests gut instincts are based on cues in our environment, and our ability to subconciously recognize them comes from heuristics which are built in, evolutionary abilities in the human brain. In most situations, when people use their instincts, they are heeding these cues and ignoring other unnecessary information.
So what’s the question here?
We all experience instinct and intuitive feelings, but our society doesn’t seem to value them as decision-making tools. Dr. Gigerenzer cites Benjamin Franklin’s account of rational decisionmaking — weighing written lists of pros and cons as an example of that devaluation.
Personally, I think there are two other reasons. First — I think we are all too interested in covering our backsides. We live in a litigious society, one that needs paperwork and evidence to prove every decision is right. Robbed a bank? You can’t be convicted without the evidence, even if everyone “knows” you did it. Need a mortgage? The mortgage broker won’t give you a mortgage based on instinct; he’ll need all the paperwork to back him up. Think your golf has improved? You’ll have to pull all your scorecards together and make a chart to see if your handicap is lower than it used to be.
But more important than stockpiling evidence is the question of trusting our intuition. We may have those flashes of ideas, but do we trust them? It’s the question of trust that made me feel vindicated when I read Blink.
Like most of us, I grew up making those rational decisions that require lists of pros and cons. In particular, I remember trying to decide what college to go to. On paper, one of them seemed better than the other, but in my heart (or, based on intution) I wanted to to Bucknell University. I went with my gut instinct and the decision turned out to be the right one for me.
More important to this discussion however, was the way I used — then TRUSTED — my intuition when it came to my cancer diagnosis. I just KNEW the pathology reports were wrong. I just KNEW I didn’t have cancer. And I set out to prove it. And I was right.
Had I not trusted my intuition, I would have undergone chemo. One can only imagine what the fallout would have been from unnecessary chemo.
There is no downside to trusting one’s intuition about one’s health, as long as that intuition takes you in wise directions. For example, “knowing” that you don’t have enough information to make a decision will send you in the direction of researching further, getting a second opinion, asking relevant questions, or finding support from other patients. “Knowing” you are experiencing side effects that are dangerous, as opposed to accepting them because you think they are just part of taking that drug, will send you back to the doctor’s office to review whether you are taking the right drug, or taking it in the right dose.
The only time trusting your intuition about your health can be bad is if you mix it up with wishful thinking. “Knowing” you don’t need to see a doctor because that pain that’s shooting down your arm can’t possibly be a heart attack…. or “knowing” that your dizziness and drooping mouth can’t possibly be a stroke — that’s not trusting your intuition — that’s wishful thinking and it may cost you your life.
Trusting one’s intuition to get the best care possible is a real, bonafide, patient tool. Use it. Use it wisely. You’ll be healthier because of it.
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