A Few Reflections on Grantmaking and Intuition

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Way back in September of 2008 I attended the annual conference of the Association of Small Foundations (now called Exponent Philanthropy) up in Denver. There was one concurrent session that I was particularly interested in: The Secret of Effective Grants: The Power of Intuition. This session was put on by Chet Tchozewski and Gabriel Works. Here’s the brief description of this session that appeared in the conference materials:

What are the best ways to address social problems? Though data and analysis offer some answers, we’ll examine the powers and perils of experienced-based “soft knowledge” and the role of intuition in grantmaking.

Allow me to present a few bullet points from this session that I recorded in my notes:

  • Today (in 2008) we are dumbing down ambition within philanthropy as a way of accommodating measurement. (The same could be said of education today in 2014.)
  • This dumbing down process has the effect of filtering out concern for some of our most pressing social problems, such as damage to any number of environments and ecosystems.
  • Here’s a quote from one of the presenters: “We measure what we value. Sadly, this leads to an unfortunate extension: we only value what we can measure.”
  • At this point, one presenter mentioned the following quote by Einstein: “Not everything that can be counted, counts; what counts is often not countable.”
  • The presenters quoted Einstein once again when they said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
  • Here’s how the presenters simply defined intuition: “A synthesis of past learnings.”
  • The presenters expanded this definition of intuition in the following way: “A synthesis of past learnings in such a way that a selection of past elements can be projected into the future in a novel way that has the potential to point efforts toward a concrete course of action.”

Here are the words the presenters used to describe the positive nature of intuition:

  • rapid
  • strategic
  • adaptive
  • perceptive
  • discerning
  • experiential

Here are the words the presenters used to describe the not-so-positive nature of intuition:

  • uncertain
  • inexact
  • not teachable
  • unexplainable

According to the presenters, intuition works best when …

  • … technical solutions are not known or prove difficult.
  • … quick decisions are needed.
  • … the prevailing environment is changing rapidly.
  • … risk must be reduced in the absence of empirical or scientific data.

A few days after returning home from the conference, a post appeared on the ASF ListServ that expressed a rather dim view of the session on grantmaking and intuition. Here’s an excerpt from that post the way it appeared:

Having gone to a meeting here in Denver where a guy came out under the auspices of ASF and gave a speech on INTUITIVE GIVING. I never heard so much ‘CRAP’ in my life. I asked him where he bought his OUIJI BOARD. Told him he was out of his mind. Why not call it “shot in the dark giving.” As far as I am concerned there are a lot of nut cakes around doing stupid things. All they are doing is setting the stage for more rules and regs although they deny it.

As the above excerpt points out, intuition can be a rather divisive topic. As cognitive scientist turned political commentator George Lakoff points out in his work, liberals tend to use systemic causation when they think about and develop solutions to social problems. Suffice it to say that systemic causation and intuition share much in common. Allow me to explain.

According to Ludwig von Bertalanffy—arguably the father of naturalistic systems theory—reductionistic science is great for “analyzing elements, but then forgets to look at the relationships between elements, their interactions, and, as a result, is ill-equipped to put all the elements together in a whole that works” (quoting Bertalanffy from his 1969 book General System Theory). “Putting elements together in a whole that works” sounds a lot like the expanded definition of intuition given above. As Bertalanffy points out, “[A]n ecosystem is real enough, but cannot be directly observed. It is a conceptual construct and implied by observation.” On the surface it would appear that intuition is closely associated with such things as “conceptual constructs,” “implications,” “wholes that work,” and “relational interactions” (especially with the environment).

The goal of reductionistic science is to reduce systems or wholes into simple cause and effect chains that can be easily studied, especially in a laboratory setting. According to Lakoff’s research, conservatives tend to use direct causation when they think about and develop solutions to social problems. To arrive at direct causation, systems must be reduced. In order to count or measure or test, systems must be reduced. As systems are reduced to isolated parts, the need for intuition is likewise reduced. I would suggest that the above post excerpt was written by an irate conservative who abhorred the idea of taking a systems or intuitive approach to solving social problems. Consider this quote by Lakoff:

The right-wing attack on science is not an attack on all science. The sciences attacked are those that rely the most on systemic causation: evolution and global warming. There is no attack on Newtonian physics—no attack on billiard ball causation, conservation of momentum, conservation of energy, or even gravity (you drop something, it falls).

Simply, wholes are not for everyone, nor are reduced elements no longer able to interact with each other or the environment. As an aside, Bowlby’s attachment theory is very much about interactions between elements—infants, mothers, caregivers, behavioral systems, communities, etc.—and how such interactions contribute to a whole that works.

The impression I get is that many people (especially conservatives) do not care for intuition because it’s too “touchy feely” or “airy fairy” or, dare I say, emotional. But is it really these things? Just the other day I reread my executive summary of Carl Jung’s last book Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies (1964, Princeton University Press). Sure, Jung is known for his writings concerning intuition. Heck, one of his famous dichotomies is Sensing(S) versus Intuition(N). Hmmm … how about Measuring versus Intuiting. As I reread my summary of Flying Saucers, some of Jung’s descriptions of intuition hit me in a new way. Yes, I had a few intuitions concerning Jung’s take on intuitions. Let me provide a few of these intuitions.

Consider this excerpt from my executive summary of Flying Saucers:

UFO sighting and alien abduction narratives and stories represent a commingling of the conscious empirical world with the unconscious intuitive world. Using WWII as a backdrop, Jung observes that we sense the empiricism of an air raid siren, bombs falling out of the sky like rain, and people literally evaporating, and it only makes sense that the unconscious will react by trying to make this picture whole. Trauma serves to break down systems into autonomous, isolated subsystems, into “separate selves” as Jung puts it. And it would appear that flying saucer sightings and abduction experiences express a desire for a return to systems integration. In attachment terms this would amount to a return to integration and balancing of the attachment, caregiving, and sexual behavioral systems.

Brain researchers, such as Louis Cozolino, tell us that when the mid-brain amygdala—the main fear center of the brain—is triggered, it not only produces a fear state but it also creates a desire for images or conceptualizations capable of explaining that fear state. Under normal circumstances (and psychological development) the amygdala turns to the upper-brain hippocampus for stories providing context and perspective. However, when the connections between the amygdala and hippocampus are compromised, possibly through trauma, the amygdala is capable of producing its own explanatory stories. These explanatory stories will make sense to the amygdala, but will not make sense when the larger context is taken into consideration. [1] So, when Jung says that the “unconscious will react by trying to make this picture [of horrific war] whole,” in my opinion he’s talking about how the amygdala, once triggered, creates its own explanatory stories, stories, like UFO sightings, that may appear bizarre to the casual observer. From a therapeutic perspective, stories arising from the amygdala must be respected for at some level of brain functioning, they are whole and, more importantly, they provide psychological protection. As I was told during the training I received at Albuquerque Rape Crisis Center back in the mid-1990s (and I paraphrase), “Don’t rush in and try to change a dysfunctional family system. Even a dysfunctional family system still functions.”

Consider this excerpt from my summary of Flying Saucers that deals with Jung’s take on intution:

Jung tells us that “as soon as the unconscious content enters the sphere of consciousness it has already split [conceptually speaking] into the ‘four,’ that is to say it can become an object of experience only by virtue of the four basic [conceptual] functions of consciousness.” Here are Jung’s four functions of consciousness:

  • it is perceived as something that exists (sensation)
  • it is recognized as this and distinguished from that (thinking)
  • it is evaluated as pleasant or unpleasant, etc. (feeling)
  • it is intuition that tells us where it came from and where it is going (time)

With respect to the forth function, Jung observes: “[Intuition] cannot be perceived by the senses or thought by the intellect. Consequently the object’s [conceptual] extension in time and what happens to it [i.e., imagining the object in the future] is the proper concern of intuition.”

Well, yes and no. I would argue that the forth function is the proper concern of our cognitive ability to conceptualize such things as mental time travel, planning for the future, mental modeling, etc. Does the future exist? No, but yet we plan our lives around the future based in large part on our experiences of the past. I am of course talking about EF or Executive Functioning—delaying gratification, mental time travel, mental modeling, planning, perspective taking, empathy, etc. So, sure, the amygdala is capable of producing states of wholeness based on its own self stories, but these stories tend to lack the various dimensions of EF such as time travel, planning, mental modeling, delaying gratification and the such. But give the amygdala some credit. From an evolution standpoint, the job of the amygdala is to facilitate survival in the here and now. There is no sense worrying about your 401k plan when there’s a lion breathing down your neck. No sense worrying about your kid’s college fund when bombs are dropping all around you. So, I can’t help but think that intuition plays a role in bridging between the stories of the amygdala, which tend to be about the here and now, and the stories of the hippocampal or frontal areas of the brain, which tend to be about time travel, planning, delaying gratification, concern for others, mental modeling, etc.

Testing and assessment is definitely concerned with the here and now, with ad hoc stories if you will. But how do we get back to ambition, back to the stories of EF? Two things need to happen: 1) identify the source of fear and trauma, and, 2) begin the process of healing from that fear and trauma. Hopefully in this way people will be able to become more psychologically minded, more, dare I say, intuitive. In this way we can hopefully live out the above extended definition of intuition: “A synthesis of past learnings in such a way that a selection of past elements can be projected into the future in a novel way that has the potential to point efforts toward a concrete course of action.” Just remember that, according to Jung’s theory of consciousness, it is intuition that tells us where things in the brain came from and where they are going.


[1] I just wanted to mention that the AAI (adult attachment interview) was designed specifically to look for ad hoc explanatory stories that tend to arise from the fear-producing centers of the brain versus explanatory stories that tend to arise from the context-producing centers of the brain. The former stories tend to be canned, general, rehearsed, nonspecific, out of time or place, and lacking coherence. The latter stories tend to be idiosyncratic, specific, genuine, in time and place, in context, and coherent. The idea behind the AAI is simple but yet elegant: early safe and secure attachment relationships (if all goes well) allows for free and open exchange between brain centers such as the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the frontal regions. Early threatening and insecure attachment relationships tends to block communication between the various brain centers such that brain centers, according to naturalistic systems theory, act in isolated and autonomous ways. The idea behind the AAI is that we can “see” how the various brain centers primarily concerned with attachment relationships and functioning are set up and functioning by analyzing linguistic structures. The key component of the AAI is that the interview be conducted in such a way that the attachment behavioral system is activated during the interview. This is why the AAI has a distinct advantage over non-relational assessments of attachment functioning such as self-report questionnaires and brain scan studies. Sadly, self-report questionnaires and brain scans are used most often to assess for attachment functioning because it is easier to reduce or eliminate the attachment relationship. Ironic wouldn’t you say. In fairness to Jung, I would suggest that he used the linguistic structures of archetypes to assess brain functioning in both individuals and society. And now brain science is catching up with psychoanalytic science. For more on this theme, see the article in the April 2014 issue of Discover Magazine by Kat McGowan entitled The Second Coming of Freud—Century-Old Insights Shed New Light on the Brain. You may also wish to see the special section on Freud at 150 in the April/May 2006 issue of Scientific American Mind. Here’s a brief description of this special section: “Neuroscientists are finding that their biological descriptions of the brain may fit together best when integrated by psychological theories that Freud sketched a century ago.” That April/May 2006 issue of Scientific American Mind has a great article on mirror neurons. Hmmm … mirror neurons … intuition … hmmm….