Updated: August 26, 2011

We've all experienced it: That feeling in your stomach compelling you to do--or not do--something for no logical reason. It's what drivesyou to take the long way to work and miss thetraffic accident or to accept the date with the guywho turns out to be the one. And while it may seemlike a mysterious force, scientists are discoveringthat intuition is actually a highly specialized wayof thinking. "It's learned expertise--something wemight not even be aware we had-that is instantlyaccessible," says David Myers, Ph.D., a socialpsychologist and the author of Intuition: ItsPowers and Perils. The good news is you can findout how to tap into your gut, take control ofyour destiny, and start living a more rewardinglife simply by answering these six questions.

1. Are you in tune with your environment?

Ever wonder howfirefighters seem to knowwhen to get out of a burningbuilding--almost like theyhave a sixth sense? GaryKlein, Ph.D., a cognitivepsychologist and the authorof The Power of Intuition,has spent years studying thisphenomenon. His conclusion?"Firefighters have learned,over time, to notice subtlecues that are invisibleto the rest of us," he says."Their subconscious spots anomalies." In otherwords, they're constantlygoing through an internalchecklist. As soon assomething doesn't matchup, they know to get out.

Gut check

To fine-tunethis ability yourself,identify a few placesyou know very well, likeyour home, office, orneighborhood, and try tofind three things in eachthat you've never noticedbefore. This simple actwill help train you to beattuned to changes orirregularities. Once you'vepicked up on a messagefrom your environment,use it to make a decision.For example, if you lookaround your home andnotice that an electricalcord has become frayed,replace it. Even if youdon't have a child, youmay prevent a guest'stoddler from having aserious accident.

2. Are you a good listener?

"In order to beintuitive, you need toactively pay attentionto what others and yourenvironment are tellingyou," says Joan MarieWhelan, the author ofSoul Discovery. The moreinformation you take in,the more your mind hasto draw from when itcomes time to make apivotal decision.

To prove the point, in2008 scientists from theMax Planck Institute forHuman Development inBerlin interviewed ordinarypeople who had investedin the stock market simplyby choosing stocks orcompanies they'd heardof before. The scientistsmade portfolios of thesestocks and comparedtheir success to similarlysized ones compiled byindustry experts. After sixmonths, the portfolios puttogether by the seeminglyuninformed group hadearned more money thanthe ones designed by thepros. Why? Researcherstheorize that the rookiesprobably chose stocksthey'd inadvertently heardgood things about. Tutorsactually advocate this typeof strategy when you'restumped on a test or workproblem: Go with thesolution that resonatesmost with you, even ifyou can't pinpoint whyit seems right.

Gut check

To become abetter listener, start byasking yourself, "Howoften do I cut people off?Am I frequently trying toget my point across ratherthan listening?" If so, trymaintaining eye contactwith the person speakingto you. "You're less likelyto interrupt someoneyou're staring at," saysWhelan. This will help youreally hear everything heor she has to say. Overtime it will help you pickup on things others don't.

3. Do you pay attention to body language?

Highly intuitive peoplemay seem like mindreaders, but the truth is,they're just better atguessing what peoplearound them arethinking--largely becausethey're adept at sussingout nonverbal signals.

Gut check

Researchersbelieve that the ability toread faces is a skillwe've acquired throughevolution. "Historically,living in groups has beenextremely important tosurvival," says MichaelBernstein, a researcher atMiami University in Oxford,Ohio. "Being kicked outof the group could meandeath, so people becamevery good at evaluatingfacial expressions andsocial cues," he says. Nowa similar phenomenonoccurs with people whohave faced rejection (e.g.,they've been booted outof a clique at school orgotten dumped), saysBernstein, who publishedhis findings in a recentissue of PsychologicalScience. "They aregenerally able to recognizewho is and isn't beinggenuine simply byscrutinizing their smiles."To become a better bodylanguage reader, saysBernstein, stare someonein the eyes when theysmile: "If the musclesaround their eyes crinkle,it's the real deal. A fauxsmile only requires you tomove your mouth." Rapid swallowing or blinkingand restricted armmovements can indicatedishonesty, notes JoeNavarro, an ex-FBI agentand the author of WhatEvery Body Is Saying.

4. Are you a risk taker?

A StanfordBusiness Schoolstudy of 170 Silicon Valleystart-ups found that themost successful werenot those with the mostexperienced employees.Rather, they were theones whose workershad the most diverseand unconventionalbackgrounds--in otherwords, the companies thatmade risky hires insteadof just seeking out thestrongest résumés. "Goingout on a limb is anotherbedrock of intuition. Whenyou take risks, you're beingproactive, which helps youcontrol events better thanwhen you're reactive," saysWhelan. In essence, you'reupping the odds that goodthings will come your way.

Gut check

Get in thehabit of actively seekingout opportunities to dothings that are outside thenorm for you. Take anunexpected route on yourevening walk just becauseit feels right, or pick up thephone and call someonewho inexplicably pops intoyour mind. Not only willthis get you in the habitof listening to your gut, itwill also help you getaccustomed to makingproactive choices. Chancesare, some of them willeventually make adifference. Reconnectingwith an old friend, forexample, could result in alead on a great new job.

5. Do you second-guess yourself?

In a Michigan StateUniversity study,experienced chess playersdid as well playing asped-up version of thegame as they did playingit the traditional way.In other words, theydidn't need to mull overdecisions to ace the game."Although some of whatwe call intuition is actuallyknowledge we didn't knowwe had, another part of itis conscious expertise,"says Klein. "Getting backto the firefighters, they'vebeen in so many burningbuildings, they knowto check for things we'dnever think of without evenrealizing they're doingit." If they stopped tosecond-guess themselves,the results could bedevastating. In fact,research shows that whenit comes to things youdo all the time, stoppingand thinking can actuallyincrease your errorrate by up to 30 percent.

Gut check

Identify thethings you probably knowmore about than most--your health, family, and job.If you have a strong feelingabout any of these, payattention to it-and askyourself as many questionsabout it as possible("How long have I felt thisway?" "What exactly amI reacting to?"). Then writedown the answers anddetermine whetheryou're onto somethingthat could warrant furtheraction and ultimatelylead you to a wise (akaintuitive) decision.

6. Can you let go and relax?

Scientists arediscovering that whenyou're looking for insight,taking a break from whatyou're doing is often thebest approach.

"Consciously or not, yourmind is always working.Giving yourself permissionto let go of your focus andignore all the maybes andwhat ifs can make roomfor you to follow moreintuitive ideas," says MarkJung-Beeman, Ph.D., acognitive neuroscientist atNorthwestern University.

Gut check

Doingsomething fun can giveyour brain space for insight,according to Jung-Beeman.So try to find 30 minutesa day for exercise, readingfor pleasure, enjoyingnature, or even squeezingin a catch-up session with afriend--anything thatsteers your thoughts awayfrom daily stresses andpatterns will help clear yourhead of clutter. Duringthose times, force yourselfto not think of anything inparticular. Instead let yourmind free-associate--anddon't be surprised if theinsight you gain leadsto an outcome you neverdreamed possible.

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