Sometimes instinct is better than thought

By David Vestal Back to

“intuition n. [ML. intuitio, fr. L. intueri to look on, fr. in- in, on + tueri. See tuition.] The power of knowing, or the knowledge obtained, without recourse to inference or reasoning; innate or instinctive knowledge; familiarly, a quick or ready apprehension… .”

We use intuition when photographing, when selecting and printing photos, and in everyday unconscious decisions of many kinds. I intuit (that’s the verb) that we don’t have to figure things out that are truly instinctive, hard-wired in our brains, or things we have learned from much experience. In such cases, too much thinking may lead to self- deception.

We can talk ourselves and others into almost anything, however ridiculous. Consider politics, advertising, philosophy, religion, art, and crime—great sources of widely believed nonsense. Sometimes we can untangle and correct confusion by observation and analysis. Certain times and situations require clear thinking, while others call for action without thought.

If there’s a problem, it’s knowing when to think, and when to act instead. To keep a child from running in front of a truck does not require meditation, but deciding what to buy or how to vote calls for deliberate thought. With practice we learn when to do which.

Think clearly, act quickly

In photographing, either may be best. Photographers who rely on tripods and long exposures should think before closing the shutter, stopping down the lens, pulling out the dark slide and exposing; but when photographing rapid action with a handheld camera, we do better to act on impulse. When a tripod-bound photographer is confronted by quickly changing light, it’s best to do both: first think and pull the slide, then wait for the light to look good, then pounce instantly. Think clearly, act quickly.

We do need to think. Cause-and-effect logic, and where-are-we-and-where-are- we-going analysis are useful. But they can’t solve every problem, and may take too long. By the time we figure out how to catch it, the rabbit is long gone. Maybe next time.

Suspect popular beliefs. Think for yourself. To me, for example, “In the beginning was the word” seems wrong. I think reality came first, then observation, then, later, gestures and the first words. It’s clear that pictures came before writing, but how long before? When did gesture and speech, tool-making and picture-making come to us? All at once or in what succession? If we ever learn these things we might gain from it, but do they matter now? Too much else needs our attention first.

How do we develop intuition?

By skating on thin ice. At a guess, it’s something like learning our own language. First we hear, but only tone has meaning. Then we connect this sound, or word, with that thing or action. We sense patterns, and meaning eventually builds. We learn first from direct experience, and later less directly as well, by being shown and told about things, and by groping. It’s never complete. Language keeps changing. Words fall out of use or take on other meanings according to experience, and new words are made up to say new things.

I believe that intuition, knowledge without thought, develops from experience by assimilation; by unconscious mental processing of what we see, feel, and think we know.

Folklore says, and experience confirms, that we learn especially difficult things most easily by obsessing on them. Think long and hard about them, usually in vain, but don’t let that stop you; then let them go and sleep on them. With luck, you may wake up with a ready-formed right answer. Usually getting it takes longer. Sometimes we dream it. More often it just seems to occur to us naturally, some time later.

We come to know our stuff as we know the words that give form to our thoughts, without knowing how we know. It doesn’t happen just by trying, or just by calculation. It takes more commitment than that. After a new realization, we suddenly see it as self-evident. How could we not have known? It’s so obvious! But it wasn’t obvious before.

I’ve come to think of intuition as informed instinct, assimilated experience and thought that eventually come together and make themselves known. Zen, which I must treat with skeptical care, is a relatively conscious kind of skating on thin ice. Zen is mainly concerned with direct awareness of reality, as expressed by the formula, “At first mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers. Then mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers. Finally mountains are mountains again, and rivers are rivers.” Things are as they were, but now we know them, and, surprise, we always knew them. Nothing but present awareness has been added. Full realization of stage three about mountains and rivers is said to come suddenly, as a surprise, and it’s called satori, or enlightenment, or attaining buddhahood. I don’t need the raise in rank, but seeing that what seems true generally is true, if we’re not fooled by others or ourselves, has value. Zen claims to place “no reliance on words and symbols,” and to care only for the reality behind all words and symbols. The joke on Zen is that it teaches this by using words and symbols.

Costume-party Zen is in fashion. It depends heavily on props. Incense, gongs, saffron robes, bangs on the head with a staff, you name it, they have it. Dim academics and faddists are enthusiastic about Zen koans, cryptic declarations of impossibilities, which novices are ordered to understand. Make sense of this, stupid! A much-publicized koan is “the clapping of one hand.” They’re all like that. Any oxymoron will do if it’s long enough and uttered with authority.

A rant

I think Zen began as an attempt to get rid of all ceremony about reality and go straight to reality without the trimmings. So, naturally, Zen monasteries are housed in ornate buildings, and everything done in them is done with elaborate ceremony. This makes me think, in turn, of university English departments where criticism replaces literature, which is considered irrelevant except that it provides critics with raw material for incomprehensible deconstruction. It’s idiotic. Much the same goes for college art departments where photography and silly theories about photography are solemnly taught by people with advanced degrees and little else, in the sacred name of Art. Some arts organizations reverently do the same and publish their preposterous pictures and findings in elaborate brochures. Some photo workshops operate on that same wavelength.

More to the point, I suggest using your hard-earned intuition to choose what to photograph and how best to photograph it. In doing so, first satisfy yourself. Pleasing others is good but secondary. Pleasing yourself is a relatively reliable way to please them. The principle behind this is that we all have much in common, so we can often understand each other. That’s worth more than any amount of art theory.

About the Author

David Vestal
David Vestal is a photographer and teacher whose publications include The Art of Black & White Enlarging (1984) and The Craft of Photography. His photographs are exhibited internationally and are found in numerous private and public collections including New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. The wit and wisdom of his commentaries have long earned him a strong following among readers.