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Massage Today
March, 2008, Vol. 08, Issue 03

Relying on Intuition

By Keith Eric Grant, PhD, NCTMB

"When we classify an aptitude as intuitive, it conveniently serves to remove it from the list of things we need to teach or confront. Perhaps, however, this accepted map does not match the territory it supposedly represents. Could it be that achieving mastery beyond technical competence is less innate than we customarily believe? My answer to this question is that I believe that implicit skills both underlie and transcend what we typically think of and teach as massage skills. Following a common terminology from psychology, I refer to these as metaskills. My second premise is that more is known about the structure and communication of these metaskills than we usually believe. A major reason for this disconnection is that much of the knowledge we seek is scattered across the boundaries of several disciplines. The good news is that it is exactly such knowledge, from regions where different disciplines cross and intermingle, that often newly inspires creativity and invention. My third and final thesis in writing this article is that what we learn about our metaskills can fundamentally influence how we conceptualize and teach the practice of massage therapy."3

A little more than a decade ago, I started several years of pondering and slowly piecing together an article on intuition and metaskills. Apart from a few preceding lines, the paragraph above was the opening statement of that article. The passage of a few more years has only strengthened my conviction that much of intuition is, in reality, a simple expression of experience-based expertise operating at an unconscious level of the mind. Those years also have added more supporting resources.

My starting point this round is Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink, a lay introduction to our use of tacit knowledge and unconscious decision-making. In the book, Gladwell ties into the field research on decision-making done by Gary Klein.4 What Klein had expected to see, based on theories and laboratory studies, was experts making rational comparisons of two or more alternatives. What he discovered, however, was this wasn't how the real world worked. The great majority of the time, people unconsciously recognized a situation as "prototypical" of something in their experience and moved directly into action. Klein termed this process recognition-primed decision-making (RPD), something Klein also noted as being a model of intuitive response. When the situation was even more novel and a single response wasn't obvious, people would engage in "satisficing"- mentally simulating possible responses one by one and picking the first one that would likely work. The mental simulation allowed experts to spot weaknesses in a potential response without trying it. The process was rapid, generally occurring in less than a minute. Logical comparison was used only in learning situations outside of prior experience. It resulted in far slower responses and less certainty of achieving desired effects.

Klein recounts research done by co-worker Beth Crandall, who studied how nurses in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) of a large hospital judged when a baby was developing a life-threatening infection. Often these premature infants only weighed about 2 pounds each, sometimes less. Crandall saw that the nurses could react to the start of sepsis even when objective tests were still coming back negative. Rather than starting from objective knowledge and developing methods by which nurses could detect the onset of infections, Crandall's research delved into what expert nurses were doing unconsciously. She catalogued that into cues that could be used to more quickly train expertise. In short, Crandall was discovering how to train nursing intuition. This process of eliciting how naturalistic decision-making works is the subject of cognitive task analysis, a domain to which Crandall, Klein and Robert Hoffman have contributed their own field manual.1

In his book,4 Klein provides us with a statement about training that's as applicable to massage as to the professions he specifically studied:

"One final application involves training. The ideas set forth in this chapter imply that we do not make someone an expert through training in formal methods of analysis. Quite the contrary is true; in fact, we run the risk of slowing the development of skills. If the purpose is to train people in time-pressured decision making, we might require that the trainee make rapid responses rather than ponder all the implications. If we can present many situations an hour, several hours a day, for days or weeks, we should be able to improve the trainee's ability to detect familiar patterns. The design of the scenarios is critical, since the goal is to show many common cases to facilitate a recognition of typicality along with different types of rare cases so trainees will be prepared for these as well."4

Klein's observations don't say that information is unimportant, but they do emphasize the need for teaching anatomical and other didactic information within the framework provided by hands-on experience. The conclusions Klein makes from research thus run counter to what I've observed as a trend in massage training: delaying hands-on experience while stressing the purely didactic. While Klein focused on challenging situations - those that would place the most stress on expertise - he is also explicit that the results are even more applicable to commonplace situations. He found the same responses in design engineers who had weeks on a project as those who had to make life-or-death decisions within seconds.

With experience, we most often act without conscious consideration of the exact sensory input to which we are responding. Our unconscious minds recognize the patterns of sensory information and our hands "tell" us what to do. When we achieve this ability, we join a wide interdisciplinary corps of experts. It's part of the power of "knowing" just the point that invokes a change.


  1. Crandall B, Klein G, Hoffman R. Working Minds - A Practitioner's Guide to Cognitive Task Analysis. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2006.
  2. Gladwell M. Blink - The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. New York: Little Brown & Co., 2005.
  3. Grant KE. "Sometimes We Call It Intuition: Metaskill Learning and Application in Massage Therapy,"1999. Available at
  4. Klein G. Sources of Power  - How People Make Decisions. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1998.

Click here for previous articles by Keith Eric Grant, PhD, NCTMB.


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