August 04, 2007

Thank You Michael Chertoff: Intuition, Gut Feelings, and the Bush Administration

Thank you Michael Chertoff. I’ve been waiting for the chance to write about this administration and intuition. So you had a gut feeling that the Islamic terrorists are going to attack us soon. Don't we all. (Picture of Mr Chertoff and his gut from

Yes you have access to more information than the rest of us. You could be integrating this below awareness and coming up with something more significant than the vague feeling we all have---even though you say there was nothing specific besides increased activity in Al Qaeda training camps. But balancing this is the proclivity of this administration to play the fear card when they want to change the subject. More and more Republicans are falling off the Iraq war bandwagon. Seems to me if this gut feeling were anything other than a political ploy you would have raised the terror level to the next color---silly as that might be. Instead you just tried to raise the fear level.

Whether or not you actually had a gut feeling about this---you are only a bit player. But your boss Bush is known for going with his gut and he has consequently helped give intuition somewhat of a bad name. I feel a need to defend my topic of study against his now infamous incompetence and the incompetence of most everyone on whom he depends.

Intuition has a very complex relationship to gut feelings. (For another take on this relationship from a different perspective---see Reason vs. Intuition.) The intuition of Bush and his administration seems effective only when geared to winning power. I would even say it is magnificent on that score. They are incredibly inventive, even uncanny in their judgment here. Also they appear to leave no stone unturned in their desire to seek their own political advantage. But their intuition doesn’t seem to work very well for them when the task is instead to look after the best interests of the country. Their gut feelings and whatever else they integrate into their decisions have been for the most part wrong and very often spectacularly so---with disastrous results.

I suspect part of the problem is lack of motivation at the deepest level. They seem not to care about the well-being of the country--- and certainly not about governing as an art. Instead it is all about their raw power. How could their gut feelings work so well for them some of the time and not at all at other times?

Gut feelings are grounded in emotions. Although emotions get a bad rap, they are essential to us. They are evolution's way of assuring that our survival needs are taken care of so that we will survive and even thrive. As Spinoza pointed out---way before Darwin--- thriving is our basic task as biological organisms, and emotions play an important role in this task---up to a point.

Emotions are closely coupled to biological drives at least to begin with---such as the need to satisfy hunger, avoid danger, to reproduce, and to gather information about the world. But with time, the positive or negative arousal---or constellation of bodily feelings---associated with different emotions get connected to many other things. Largely without our awareness, these bodily feelings have an important role in guiding behavior and decision-making ----just as is true with other animals. A recent NYT article titled Who's Minding the Mind? summarizes some recent work showing that experimenters can manipulate our unconscious feelings without our awareness and thereby affect our subsequent behavior---at least to a certain degree.

What these positive and negative feelings get connected to over time depends on the interaction of individual biology, training and education, and of course the vagaries of chance. Emotions eventually come to determine our most basic values--- what motivates us, or is important to us---what we care about. But these do not necessarily correspond to what we hold as values at a conscious level, although they might. Rather these unconscious values are reflected in some underlying consistency that characterizes our behavior over time--- and they can be very different.

Gut feelings are thus a generic term for largely unconscious bodily feelings that direct behavior according to our values. (The work of Antonio Damasio has been very important in establishing the importance of somatic feelings to decision-making.) The bottom line is that for the most part we only have trustworthy gut feelings about things that are important to us at this unconscious level---which I will stress again may or may not correspond to what at a conscious level we hold to be our values.

Bush and his lackeys care about power, not about governing or even about Democracy. (Who with a deep interest in democracy would label themselves “The Decider?”) When Bush goes with his gut about anything other than what bears on accumulating power, as far as I can ascertain, he is not interested in the subject. He seems to have instead simply incorporated into his visceral guidance system the need to further the aims of others who are likely to advance his power.

Our strange and dangerous President is unusually lacking in that aspect of emotion that motivates us to be interested in the world and its workings in what seems to be at first glance a more or less non-partisan way. Yet in the long run this capacity to be interested for interests’ sake has had an essential role in our survival both as individuals and as a species. It has certainly been responsible for our collective scientific endeavor and our technological prowess, which (at least up to this point) have been important to our ability to thrive.

Power, of course, like gut feeling and its relationship to intuition is a many sided issue. Technological power (independent of the uses which some put it to) is a less raw kind of power than the kind that tends to motivate the bullies of this world---such as George Bush. Alas his favorite nickname in some circles “the Chimp,” is surprisingly apt (with apologies of course to many Chimpanzees). Like many others, my gut feelings tell me that any President whose need for power may know no bounds is just as dangerous to America as an external attack.


I was recently in Prague where I visited the Museum of Communism. The exhibit about the secret police stressed that wiretapping under communism, in contrast to what happens in Democratic Countries, required no court order!


Anonymous said...

I would say that both Bush and Chertoff are no more emotionally intelligent than otherwise. Even
as gangsters they are not all that effective -- it hasn't really turned out too well for them
considering what most people think of them at this point. Competent warlords and emperors are
generally more popular. Perhaps it wasn't true gut feeling, but his polyps which Bush was feeling?

Interesting subject for a book: Understanding Intuition: The Bridge Between Science and
Spirituality. I think intuition is different from emotion or gut feeling, but we don't seem to have
an adequate vocabulary for describing them -- perhaps a shamanistic culture would have more. The times I've had what were apparently solid intuitions and magickal experiences, I can't say
they were 'emotional'; I didn't 'feel' much at
all, such as happiness, anger, fear -- the usual emotions. Rather there was a sense of dispassion,
disinterest, and unconnectedness -- like just watching events.

I had once woken up in the middle of the night (I was perhaps 11 or 12) and 'knowing' the man next
door was dead. I went back to sleep. The next morning I learned he had been struck down by a
car about that time, some 10 miles away. I was friendly with him and was upset to learn that --
but I had already known: it was not a surprise -- I might have said he was dead if someone had
asked me -- but it had not 'registered' with me
until my grandmother told me in the morning. I
did some small magickal acts now and then, and I had an emotional reaction after -- a "Wow!"
reactions, but it was "look what I did" later -- not while I was doing it. Not so dissimilar from
when I might fall and recover without being hurt, and realizing I had been 'lucky' I hadn't broken myself.

I suspect that intuition is a sort of knowing or action without thought, happening on 'some other
level' or 'dimension'. I suspect this may be common except it usually doesn't reach conscious
awareness? Maybe déjà vu is stumbling across something on that other level? Maybe this is the
level where synchronicity is operative? This does not seem to be the same thing as emotion or
'gut feeling', though -- hardly what I would call 'feeling' at all.

A few more examples. I was kid -- maybe it's more common when you are a kid, before you 'learn' to
ignore it. I was playing Klondike solitaire, naming the cards aloud as they were dealt -- when
I realized I had named the last two before they were dealt -- before I saw them. Bit of a shock
to me when I realized I wasn't supposed to be able to do that -- and then of course, I couldn't
do it again. Another time I was driving and stopped at a red light. the light turned green and I just sat there -- no reason I knew of. And then a car came barreling through the intersection, a car I could have seen because of the trees lining the road. Then I started up
across the intersection, and had no feelings at all about it -- until a bit later when I thought
of it and wondered what happened.

To borrow Castenada's term, maybe one does not do magick or intuition, but does "not-do" it.
"Not-doing" -- operating in the 'spaces between" things

Anonymous said...

"I think intuition is different from emotion or gut feeling, but we don't seem to have an adequate vocabulary for describing them --"

Thanks for your interesting response and your stories. I both agree and disagree that intuition is different from emotion or gut feeling. Intuition includes many different things under its rubric. "Gut feelings" or somatic feelings are a good place to begin thinking about intuition because they help capture that sense of inner value that is likely behind most if not all of intuition. The problem is that we tend to assume that these bodily feelings are conscious---(and the use of the term "gut feelings" encourages this). Even if one is not feeling any conscious emotion in connection with intuition, bodily states associated with emotion and/or motivation, i, e, arousal, are likely to be involved. I assume the same thing applies to extraordinary intuition as well--- but may be even more subtle.

I did not use the word the word "emotional intelligence" in describing Bush or his confidantes. Quite to the contrary, they seem skilled at infuriating others with their in-your-face bully-like behavior. Sometimes I think being infuriating and flaunting norms is one of their conscious or unconscious tactics to unsettle opponents with their own outrage. ( On the other hand, after 911--it seemed to appeal to a segment of the population that thought it had some relationship to being a strong leader. But he hasn't been able to turn it off when the act has stopped working---so it's not a reflection of "an intelligence" but more about a static characteristic of his personality and those he chooses to work with) There has been a whole lot of work done on bullying. It would be interesting to apply this to the Bush administration.

However I do think Bush has been very successful in getting what he wants--- especially considering the level of support he has had. For example, he got the presidency twice and at least one of these elections, and very possibly both, he did not win. I agree that it's all short term, but his intuition is tuned towards getting power---of the most raw sort. Poppy Bush was rather the same way when it came to campaigning---do anything to win--- but fortunately he had more than one trick and was much more skilled when it came to governing.

Best, Lois

Anonymous said...

"However I do think Bush has been very successful in getting what he
wants--- especially considering the level of support he has had. For example, he got the presidency twice and at least one of these
elections, and very possibly both, he did not win. I agree that it's
all short term, but his intuition is tuned towards getting power---of the most raw sort. Poppy Bush was rather the same way when it came to campaigning---do anything to win--- but fortunately he had more than one trick and was much more skilled when it came to governing."

I've found an article about the "Bush phenomenon" as a social
condition. Paul Levy wrote one about what he calls malignant
egophrenia, and I've seen a few others based on Jung, and/or some
form of social interactionism and 'mass insanity'. One might say Bush was successful in getting what WE want, as a culture -- want on some level. That would be a Jungian interpretation, but it we think of our minds -- brains -- as being synchronized in some sort of macabre dance then it might interface with individual neurocognition as well. Is there social synchrony, maybe operative through language, pheromone type chemicals, even electrical, magnetic or some other sort of energy (the 'dark side' of qi)? At what level do we want to consider humans as being organisms -- just individually or as a species?

Would a healthy society enable someone like Bush, and allow him to get any power at all? There have been some studies abut synchrony between mothers and children, and, of course, within a
brain, but I don't know if any have been made concerning how
individual brains interact physically with others in terms of social communication and attitudes (or if it's technologically feasible yet) -- something like hooking up many people in a group to scanners while they interact?

Anonymous said...

Thanks---I found the Paul Levy article on Bush very interesting ( He draws some sublte distinctions--- name the problem but don't contract against it and don't judge at some deep level. The last two are easier said than done--- The WE aspect of the Bush phenomenon is also rather sublte and difficult to deal with. Yes all but the few of us who are enlightened are run by our egos and it is all about us---in a more minor way---as well. WE are certainly all in it together. But undo remorse for our smallness and blindness as a response seems to be a bit like taking on the suffering that Bush cannot experience. Perhaps humility for the human condition is the safest and sanest way to cope with this situation.

Best, Lois

Anonymous said...

Dr. Isenman:

My name is Chris Travis. I saw your posting on the Yahoo groups neuroscience bulletin board regarding the head of Homeland Security’s intuitive gifts, and remembered an earlier posting by you that I found intriguing.

I run an architecture firm, and am also the CEO of an internet startup that is very close to its beta launch.

The website is built around a software application we have built that evolved out of a process I developed in that design firm almost a decade ago that combines lifestyle analysis, architectural programming and neuroscience informed testing to solve a problem I had with my clients.

We used that process for many years with our clients, and had very good results, so I finally decided it was sufficiently developed to take a chance on trying to convert it to software.

Anyway, what this has to do with you is that part of what we do is based on both emotional response to environmental features, and to what is effectively “intuition.” It was unavoidable since the problem we were trying to solve was the fact that clients have no idea generally what they want in a home, in fact do not even understand that their real goals are predominantly emotional. (Comfort, safety, stature, etc.), and yet think they do.

When I began to read in this area 6-7 years ago (I have no specialized training in neuroscience or psychology – just an obsessed lay person) it because obvious to me that by whatever mechanism people could make exceptionally good decisions without thinking about them, and that in fact, they often made better decisions without conscious thought than when they made choices instinctively.

Sadly, when it comes to complex projects like designing or buying a home, such gifts do not always suffice and as a result home improvement is the greatest source of consumer complaints in America.

But intuitive processing is an issue are considered in our software application…as a native gift.

We are less than a week from out beta launch and I am buried in deliverables, so right now is not a good time for me to visit at length.

But I wanted to make contact and see if you would be willing to visit at a later date about any possible mutual interests…and perhaps exchange an e-mail or two.

I am attaching a document that includes a list of client, academic and clinical endorsements so you can determine whether or not I am a crank.

(Of course, I still could be a persuasive crank with high emotional intelligence and capable of talking smart people into thinking I am credible, and to some degree that is no doubt true.)

The website is called Currently there is only a temporary website on the Internet that is no more than a billboard.

We expect to have the real deal up on the Internet at a beta level by September 1st.

I look forward to hearing from you.

With respect,

Christopher K. Travis

Nidiant Corporation

Sentient Architecture, LLC @

Round Top Publishing Co. @

Round Top - (979) 249-5550

Austin - (512) 444-0777

Cloudcroft, NM - (505)-682-3081

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