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The hunch is something we see often in tv police dramas. There’s a long investigation, things aren’t going anywhere, and all of a sudden the grizzled veteran runs off whilst remarking to his stunned colleagues that he “has a hunch”. Where does this hunch come from? Notice it is always the experienced detective that comes up with said hunch. Believe it or not for once the tv shows have it right.

So what is a hunch? Is it instinct, a gut feeling, a wild shot in the dark? I’ve come to a hypothesis recently that I think could explain it. Intelligence work is very similar to police detective work – at their core they are about analysing information and drawing conclusions. The only real difference is in the target of an investigation; while police generally focus on individuals or perhaps groups, intelligence analysts can focus on something as broad as a country’s military or something as narrow as an individual terrorist.

What both jobs entail is looking at a lot of information and recognising patterns. When you have been doing such work for a long time, you (hopefully) become very good at identifying patterns, so much so that it becomes a background process in your brain. Your brain maps these processes and even mind maps the connections that are part of an investigation. My hypothesis is that a hunch happens when there is an anomaly in the pattern you’re studying, or there is a missing connection somewhere and while you haven’t consciously realised it, subconsciously you know that something isn’t right. It could be because you saw a piece of information early on in the investigation that seemed unremarkable at the time, but only becomes important later on when you have much more information at hand. At this point, like a google search, that particular piece of information is so many pages back in your mind that it isn’t at the forefront of your thoughts anymore. Your subconscious brain, however, has put two and two together, and thus we get the hunch.