As a long-time student of personality type, I’ve been slowly combing through the details of type theory to examine their origins and validity. I’m particularly interested in understanding how the Myers-Briggs / MBTI preferences and Jungian functions connect with what we know, scientifically, about the two brain hemispheres. In this post, we’ll examine why Myers-Briggs intuition (N) is rightly associated with “abstract” rather than concrete processing.
According to the Myers-Briggs, intuitives are inclined toward abstract processing and activities, whereas sensing (S) types are said to be oriented to the concrete. This distinction has been crudely summarized as being “book smart” (i.e., academic) vs. “street smart” (i.e., using common sense).
One thing that’s given me pause about associating intuition with abstract processing is science has shown that the left hemisphere (a.k.a., “left brain”) oversees abstraction, while the right hemisphere is said to be more concrete and intuitive. One of the foremost investigators of hemispheric differences and author of “The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World,” Iain McGilchrist, put it this way:
The left hemisphere is the hemisphere of abstraction…The left hemisphere operates an abstract visual-form system, storing information that remains relatively invariant across specific instances, producing abstract types or classes of things.
This leads to an important question. Namely, if intuition is chiefly a product of the right hemisphere, as is commonly presumed, and abstraction a product of the left hemisphere, how are we to conceive of Myers-Briggs intuition? Does it draw on both sides of the brain?
Let’s start by considering the notion that Myers-Briggs / MBTI sensing types are more drawn to “facts,” to the proverbial trees instead of the forest. While often unrecognized as such, facts are in many cases abstractions. The left hemisphere uses symbols—most notably words and language—to represent and store them. While facts may be rooted in concrete observations, they eventually become abstractly represented in the brain. So insofar as sensing types are fact-oriented, they can’t be said to be entirely concrete thinkers.
Here’s another point of concern. Myers-Briggs judging (J) types are generally more left-brained and inclined to abstract, language-based processing. It’s easy to see, for instance, why ISTJs and ESTJs might be construed as left-brained types. Similarly, perceiving (P) is often linked with the right hemisphere, hence casting doubt on whether NP types are more abstract or concrete. This suggests that the notion of the “abstract intuitive” vs. the “concrete sensor” isn’t as clear-cut as we might expect. While it seems an apt construct for contrasting NJ and SP types, it is less befitting for an SJ-NP comparison.
To start untangling this situation, let’s take a closer look at what “abstract” means. Taken literally, it means “to draw away.” We might think of it as mentally moving away from, or going beyond, what’s given. So while it’s technically true that facts are abstractions insofar as they are extracted from a larger context of information, this fails to capture the true spirit of how and why intuitives are abstract.
The key distinction appears to be this: sensors are inclined to stop at the facts, whereas intuitives go beyond them—exploring their interrelations and the possibilities they inspire. In a real sense, intuitives abstract from abstractions, and they do so incessantly.
This brings us to an important point that most theorists have overlooked, namely—there’s more than one type of abstraction. Yes, it’s true that the left hemisphere abstracts “things” (e.g., facts) from their context and symbolically represents them. But there’s another type of abstraction that is less predictable and straightforward, involving a sort of intuitive or creative “leap,” which is more right-brained. Instead of extracting something from a context, it transports us to an associated, but rather different, context. This still satisfies the “drawing away from” criterion, but does so in a more dramatic and creative fashion. This fits perfectly with other intuitive characteristics like their creativity and imagination.
We can therefore conclude that Myers-Briggs intuition entails both left and right-brained elements. Not only are intuitives more academic and interested in abstract information (left brain), but they’re also creative and holistic thinkers (right brain). This suggests the MBTI intuition, while incorporating much of the colloquial understanding of intuition, is not synonymous with it, as it draws on both sides of the brain.