Knowing when to really trust your instincts

Diamond wedding couple Wilf abd Betty Staniforth of Woodhouse
Diamond wedding couple Wilf abd Betty Staniforth of Woodhouse
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Bessie Powell had no idea how much her life would change on that hot summer night she went to the cinema with friends.

It was June, 1946, and Bessie, a mousy-haired 14-year old, knew she’d found her husband as soon as she joined the Lyric Picture House queue.

By 1952, the cinema-going couple were walking down the aisle. No agonising, no cold feet – it was that simple.

And even to this day, 80-year-old Bessie believes that it was her gut feelings that told her Wilfred was the man for her.

“I knew he was the one,” says Bessie, who now lives at Woodhouse.

“I just looked at him and knew. We met up the next night and we’ve been together ever since.”

The ‘gut feeling’ that Bessie experienced in the cinema queue is something that has come to define the way people tick. And not just with affairs of the heart.

Dr Steve Hancock, a consultant at Embrace, which is Yorkshire and the Humber’s Children Transport Service and part of Sheffield Children’s Hospital, is often in situations where a close-call has to be made. And many of these close-calls demand an intuitive response.

Steve provides clinical advice to doctors and nurses who need to transfer critically-ill babies children to specialist hospitals.

He makes important decisions, day in, day out, about the specialist hospitals a child needs to be referred to but also about the specialist doctors required. In total, Steve and his team deal with 3,500 calls and 2,200 transfers of critically-ill children a year.

“Instinct is definitely important when you’re dealing with things remotely as a doctor, like I am. You may get a doctor ringing up with a diagnosis which is very common, such as bronchiolitis, but there can be something that tells you there’s another problem and that could be a viral infection that could lead to pneumonia. Occasionally you get a feeling that something’s just not right and that comes with experience as a doctor.

“But then other things come into play, like whether you know the person on the end of the phone. Sometimes it’s best if you don’t because you use your instinct much more. If someone rings up there’s a pattern recognition that you gain from experience and you just know when something doesn’t sound quite right. Often this is based on experience but you get an uncomfortable feeling as well.

“For example, if you think a patient needs a particular procedure, such as a spinal tap, you go ahead and do it.”

Steve never acts rashly however. “You back it up by considering the patient’s history and an examination. And you always discuss the issue with colleagues first. In medicine you’re always surrounded by a team of colleagues.”

So important is instinct to medicine that trusting one’s intuition is part of the teaching at medical school, according to Steve.

“In medicine you’re trained to go with your instinct in some cases. You are taught to recognise intuitive thoughts and examine them. It’s almost like your intuition is a safety barrier.”

The power of instinct has fascinated scientists for centuries, not least Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud, who famously said: “When making a decision of minor importance, I have always found it advantageous to consider all the pros and cons. In vital matters, however, such as the choice of a mate or a profession, the decision should come from the unconscious, from somewhere within ourselves. In the important decisions of personal life, we should be governed, I think, by the inner needs of our nature.”

Sheffield University psychologist Tom Stafford is fascinated by intuition. But Tom, from Nether Edge, believes there is more than meets the eye – or gut – where intuition is concerned.

“Since Freud the unconscious mind has been viewed as being influential to our thoughts, to ‘think without thinking.”

Unlike Freud, however, Tom believes that the unconscious does play a big part in the way our brains work, but not to the point where it is more reliable than our conscious mind when it comes to making big decisions.

“Research shows that our understanding of automatic processes like walking, breathing and talking are unconscious. We don’t think about walking, for example, until we’re on particularly rough terrain.”

But as far as intuition and decisions go, Tom explains what we think is ‘instinct’ could be understood in terms of what he describes as the ‘exposure effect’.

“Research shows exposure to something affects how we view certain situations and have particular preferences for things, even if we can’t remember where the origins of those feelings come from.”

But for Bessie it’s simple. “I just knew,” she says. “It was just right.” And after more than 60 happy years of marriage, her intuition clearly wasn’t wrong.