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No. 40, April 1998

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Intuition, mythology and dream archetypes: Awakening our hidden inner knowledge

by Jennie Brooks
St. Petersburg High School, Florida, USA

Jennie Brooks shares a complete unit on how to promote intuitive thinking in students conditioned to logical-mathematical thinking.
Some of these ideas can be used while discussing Emotion as a Way of Knowing. In the spirit of using Intuition
as a Linking Question, she also shares ideas on how to link intuitive thinking with the TOK programme.

"Listen to your heart. It knows all things, because it came from the Soul of the World, and it will one day return there" (Coelho, 1988, p. 134). While quotes such as this one intrigue my students, they come to the TOK course poorly prepared to relate to their meaning. My American students consider logical-mathematical reasoning the true test of knowledge. This idea stems from western culture's support of logical-mathematical reasoning as the most valid. Science -- or at least their stereotypical idea of it -- is synonymous with meaning, and many students are only vaguely aware of the limits of science. Thus, my students come to me with little appreciation for intuition, and they do not even understand the importance of intuitive thinking within the academic disciplines they claim to respect. They also do not typically rely on, or trust, the use of intuition in their personal lives. Students need more awareness of the total human experience, and the powerful uses of intuition to develop all types of knowledge.

I am experimenting with lessons promoting an understanding of intuitive thought. I revisited my favorite learning theorist, Jerome Bruner, for guidance on this project. Bruner writes in The Process of Education (1977) that teachers should facilitate intuitive reasoning in students and show them how it is different from analytic thinking. Developing intuitive processes helps students to draw relationships between ideas and find new uses for old ideas. Because my students are not receptive to considering intuitive thinking, I share with them some background on Bruner. Bruner states,

The third theme (of his 4 themes of learning) involves the nature of intuition--the intellectual technique of arriving at plausible but tentative formulations without going through the analytic steps by which such formulations would be found to be valid or invalid conclusions. Intuitive thinking, the training of hunches, is a much neglected and essential feature of productive thinking not only in formal academic disciplines but also in everyday life. The shrewd guess, the fertile hypothesis, the courageous leap to a tentative conclusion--these are the most valuable coin of the thinker at work, whatever his line of work (p. 13-14).

Omen Map Activity

Since my students have little awareness of what intuition means, where do I begin? I start with intuition in our personal lives. We read Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist (1988). It is a fable about Santiago, a shepherd who travels the world in search of a treasure. He is seeking his destiny, and must learn to recognize the omens along the way, and most importantly, to learn when to trust the omen's truth and follow it.

I have students write down their favorite quotes from the book as they read. Next, I give each student a piece of poster board with instructions to draw an "omen map" representing the omens they've recognized in their lives. (I find that drawing lowers defenses and rationalizations and promotes a creative environment. The end result here is similar to a road map of their lives, but shows omens rather than events.) They are to draw pictures representing (1) the omens and (2) how their paths in life were changed due to their having recognized the omens. I also ask them to include their favorite quotes onto the "omen map," in whatever places they think the quotes belong.

At first, students do not know what to do; they are obsessed with "being right." This is exactly the frame of reference I want them to drop in favor of innovative thinking. The obsession to "be right" gets in the way of innovation, that quality implicit in the intuitive stage of knowledge creation. At first we discuss this issue a great deal, and once students get started, they are fine. Some students draw only a few items; others ask for more paper. My Indian and Asian students have the richest drawings at this stage of the exercise. When the drawings are complete, we hold a class discussion in which students share the quotes they picked, and what they think Paulo Coelho's fable means.

Students openly share their puzzlement over how to recognize omens and when to trust them as life guides. I purposely let them get to this point on their own. A lecture on the importance of using intuition will not get them primed for exploration. Instead, I plant the idea that our intuitive side needs exploration, using examples of scientific discoveries made using intuitive experiences, and life examples of people choosing mates. I tell them that I have two ideas to get us started. They are based on mythology and Jung's dream archetypes.

Myths: Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung

I then introduce students to Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth (1988). Campbell makes some powerful points. He claims that myths are stories about the search for truth, meaning, and significance. He encourages us to read myths because they direct us inwards, where we can receive messages of important symbols. Campbell warns us that it is dangerous when a society no longer embraces myth: it no longer has an ethos. According to him, myths are stories about the wisdom of life. The messages of myth are timeless and cross-cultural, even though they typically develop independently. Could this be what Coelho meant by reaching and experiencing the "soul of the universe?" Campbell says that myths are the world's dreams. They are archetypal and deal with all the great human problems. They teach us how to resolve life's problems. Campbell says new myths can arise, and that the myths of the future will have to be about uniting people with the planet. Finally, Campbell says that myths and dreams come from the same place--from realizations that find expression in symbolic form. The ability to understand mythological symbols lies in all of us, though western culture does not cultivate a sense of how to recognize and use these symbols.

The next task is for each student to select a myth and bring it to class. I put students in small groups, and each person reads their myth out loud.

How do the students know what to look for in myths? A key concept in Campbell's work is that important mythological ideas typically come to us in a symbolic archetypal form. Therefore, before the students read the myths they bring in, we learn something about archetypes, how to recognize them, and how to tell important symbols from unimportant ones.

I find that Carl Jung's Man and His Symbols (1964) is very readable and easy to understand. The first three chapters give an overview of Jung's theories and good examples of dreams where meaningful archetypes appear. Student interest in symbols is immediate. One student came to class the next day and said, "I found a ladybug on my car! What does it mean?" I make sure they understand that Jung sees a difference between meaningful coincidences and those that are not. I do not think that this instance of a ladybug has significance, but some symbols students recognize are meaningful, especially in their dreams or in mythological stories from their childhood. Some of the main themes in Jung's work are hero stories, shadows, compensation symbols, initiations, transcendence, self archetypes, persona archetypes, mandalas, and the animus / anima. This book makes these concepts easy to understand, and students enjoy the stories.

At this point students read myths of their choice and start recognizing important archetypal symbols. They see more in the mythological stories than they ever did, and we have fun reading the myths. Students brought in myths representing all cultures and types of ideas.

After they've shared their myths, I have students go back to The Alchemist and look for symbols they missed during the first reading. They find so much more! They also realize that each day there is very much in their own lives that they are not aware of.

My students wanted to take Jung further, and logged their dreams for a few weeks. Dream content at their age consists mainly of hero stories, persona archetypes, and initiation stories. They have to accept that some of their dreams are not meaningful in an archetypal way. But now they know the difference, and recognize more symbolic material from their surroundings. When should they trust these symbolic messages? That takes practice and time.

At this point, I asked if there was more that could be included in their "omen map." There was. They mentioned Coelho's The Pilgrimage (1987), another interesting tale about a journey Coelho makes seeking truth. It is a guide to self-mastery and insight through a series of intuition-enhancing exercises. These exercises in personal uses of intuition are just a point of departure for studying the role of intuition in creating knowledge. The possibilities are endless in the TOK curriculum. Below, I list a few ways I link intuitive thinking with the rest of my course.

Intuition in the Natural Sciences

We examine Stephen Hawking's video series The Universe. The segment called Cosmic Alchemy specifically addresses the concept of transformation (which relates to Jung' s "transcendence"). Transformation is seen both as a physics concept about the origin of the universe and as something existing in the human mind.

The video A Brief History of Time addresses how Stephen Hawking was able to create his ideas. Hawking is not a "normal" scientist; he is an innovator. I want my students to, at the very least, be fascinated with him and to realize how, due to his illness, he had to think in ways beyond the ordinary rules. He dove into the inner world of intuitive thought, and found beautiful solutions to old problems. His ideas were then tested for truth.

The PBS video series A Science Odyssey provides some valuable stories of how science and technology were created in the 20th century. This series explicitly discusses intuitive scientific processes, how initial ideas were unpopular with the scientific establishment and the general public, and how the ideas were gradually accepted as truths. Discoveries such as insulin, the separation of the continents, computer technology, and evolution are addressed.

Intution in the Language Unit

We had fun in our language unit analyzing the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called Darmok. Captain Picard has tremendous difficulty trying to understand an alien captain from another spaceship, with whom he is trapped on a dangerous planet. Picard and his crew turn to mythology in a desperate attempt to comprehend the unique language of this race (the other captain speaks only in metaphors that refer to mythological characters). At the end of the show Picard is safely back on the ship, reading Homer. He says that if he understood mythology he would understand a lot more about the world. This drives home the point about myth bringing people together under a common ethos.

Intuition in Mathematics

Because I find that too often my students' mathematical experience has been largely computational (they have not had the opportunity to reflect on, and really come to enjoy and appreciate, mathematics) I introduce Bruner's On Knowing (1979). It contains a chapter about getting students interested in mathematical intuitive processes. Bruner says that the pure mathematician is essentially involved in studying puzzles and recognizing their deepest properties. Bruner uses a technique called "unmasking" to challenge students to uncover the basic properties of puzzles through intuitive processes. I have students work in groups with a series of difficult puzzles, and identify what relationships and patterns they see. The process is more important to me than being "right."

Intuition in the Human Sciences

In the human sciences, creativity and intuition are necessary to create novel ideas and make new connections. I find Freud's work on repetition-compulsion to be a good example. Freud watched a boy repeatedly bounce a ball off a wall and back to himself. As he observed this boy and thought of the repetitious actions in mentally ill patients, he deduced that all people relive traumatic events until they are resolved. It became a central concept of his theory, one that has stood the test of time.

Intuition in the Arts

My students understand that an artist must view the world in different ways, using his or her intuitive responses as a guide. I have them go through this process themselves, by creating their own art in the form of photography. Many find intuitive mathematical symbols in their work.

Intuitive Knowledge and Internationalism

To facilitate an international perspective on knowing intuitively, we studied a Tai Chi form. After 10 weeks of practicing a little each week, students started to internalize enough of the Yin and Yang and breathing principles to begin to understand their importance, both in healing a person and in helping the person relate to her world.

In Conclusion

Intuitive thinking is fundamental to creative thinking in all of the ways of knowing. I feel that in my classroom I've been able to plant at least a seed of this idea.


Bruner, Jerome. On Knowing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Bruner, Jerome. The Process of Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977.

Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1988.

Coelho, Paulo. The Alchemist. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1988.

Coelho, Paulo. The Pilgrimage. San Francisco, CA:. HarperCollins, 1987.

Jung, Carl. Man and His Symbols. New York, NY: Dell Publishing, 1964.


[Re-edited in 2005]

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