Food for Thought — What is My Body Telling Me? A Psychotherapist on Intuition Versus Body Memory

By Melissa Butler

Many people think they are acting intuitively when they are actually having “body memories.” This happened to me when I visited Seattle, a city I used to live in. I had positive anticipation of the trip. It felt good to step off the plane and smell the delicious evergreens and see the beauty of the landscape. Positive feelings rushed over me and I was sure I was having an intuitive “hit” that relocation was in my future.

What was actually happening was that I was merely remembering my positive experiences of the city, not getting an intuitive message. I was having a “body memory.” Thankfully, I realized this was a body memory before I made a cross-country move!

It was not obvious to me during my trip what was going on. In fact, it was not until I attended a course that introduced the concept of body memory that I realized there is a difference between the two. Once I started to understand the subtle, but real, distinction between them, my conversations with friends and psychotherapy clients began to change. We started to become curious about messages from the body versus flashes of “knowing,” and we explored our responses to both.

Recognizing a sensation as a body memory, instead of intuition, led to many “A-ha” moments and course corrections in major areas like relationships, as well as more subtle everyday decisions. Responses to body sensations changed from “I must do something about this” to “Let’s explore and be curious, find out what I can learn, and make an informed decision from that point.”

I have learned that, in my own body, intuition feels diffuse. There may be thoughts and body sensations — sometimes in the physical areas of the heart and gut, as major nerve centers are located there. With intuition, I have a sense that I can’t explain why I know what I know. It is generally creative.

When I am experiencing a body memory, I may have similar thoughts or sensations in my heart or gut, but there is also a different quality, a sense of a reminder of a past experience. When I do not question these thoughts and sensations, those associations may remain unclear, and I can mistakenly believe I am being guided when really I am being reminded.

I was so excited about this understanding that I wanted to share what I had learned with more people! This task quickly became very difficult. When I went to the published research literature to define intuition, I was blasted by the paucity and incongruity of definitions, despite the increase in intuition-based research in the last 15 years.

Nursing journals talk about intuition as being a rapid and largely unconscious data collection process based on past experiences and knowledge, occurring in the cortex area of the brain. Authors and researchers like Dan Siegel talk about intuition as the action of the nerve plexus in the heart and gut sending messages to the brain, which arrive close to decision-making and emotional regulation centers.

Other authors talk about intuition being an unconscious process, trained by one’s familiarity with a subject and a knowledge of patterns, a sort of well-tuned prediction process, based on experience. 

Social work and medical journals talk about the importance of intuition in clinical work (and it has been considered impactful since the inception of the practice, beginning with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung), yet those same sources quickly state that intuition is an unknown process that is not defined. This is an awkward position for the state of the science on intuition!
Bringing many ideas together, I derive intuition to be a quick and unconscious process, utilizing past experience and a variety of internal resources to make decisions.

Body memory, on the other hand, is well defined in trauma literature by authors and researchers such as Bessel Van der Kolk and Janina Fisher. Body memory is a process by which the body creates an implicit or procedural memory of an experience. This kind of memory is generally without a narrative story attached to it and is experienced as body sensations. That memory is recalled by the body when faced with a similar or related situation, such as my trip to Seattle, or the pleasant experience of smelling warm apple pie or freshly baked bread that could be associated with one’s caring grandmother.

Of course, body memory may not always be pleasant; it could be painful and experienced as muscle cramps or digestive issues. Painful body memories could also come with strong, procedurally learned thoughts and emotions.

To experientially understand the difference between these two types of perception requires more than ferreting out definitions. It is a process of understanding your own psychology, mind, perceptions, body, emotions, and sensations. In working both on my own and with others on this process, I have come to understand that the question of what is happening (“Is it intuition or body memory?”) is less important than utilizing patience and discernment in relating to the truth of your experience.

It may not always be necessary to know how to explain a process (e.g., defining the elusive intuition experience), as much as to understand what the outcomes are saying. By opening up this question, we are inviting curiosity and wonder as partners in discernment, as opposed to automatic responses.

In my case, understanding body memory versus intuition has not only impacted where my geographical home base should be, but has informed most of my decisions thereafter, most of the time.

Melissa Butler, MS, LLP, has a mindfulness-based psychotherapy practice in Ann Arbor and can be contacted at

Posted on April 30, 2016 .