On May 9, 2019 yoga instructor Amanda Eller vanished while on a solo run through a forest reserve in Hawaii. She was found seventeen days after her disappearance; the temperate climate helped her to survive, and she told a harrowing tale of eating berries and drinking river water.
The trouble began early, when Eller chose to leave her cell phone and water bottle in her car before setting out for what she thought would be a short run. She soon got lost following her intuition: In an interview she noted that “I have a strong sense of internal guidance, whatever you want to call that, a voice, spirit, heart… My heart was telling me, ‘Walk down this path, go left… Great! Go right. This is so strong! Go left, go right… I’m thinking, great, this is so strong that obviously when I turn around and go back to my car it’s going be just as strong. But it wasn’t.”
In a May 31 video posted to her Facebook page, Eller noted that partway into her run (apparently after realizing she was lost) she stopped to meditate by a tree along the path, “I close my eyes, and I’m just listening to nature… Just complete sobriety and clarity. After meditating I tried to return to my car and couldn’t find that path. I spent a couple of hours searching… I felt that that was the direction of my car. Clearly it was the wrong way, and I continued to go that way… The only thing I have is my gut; I don’t have a compass, I don’t have a cell phone, so [I said to] the spirit or whatever you want to pray to, ‘Please help guide me’—and like I said, I have a strong sense of guidance—and that sense of guidance is what led me on my journey, that’s what led me five miles away [from safety].”
In an interview with The New York Times, Eller explained “I wanted to go back the way I’d come, but my gut was leading me another way — and I have a very strong gut instinct. So, I said, my car is this way and I’m just going to keep going until I reach it.” As she searched for the correct path “I heard this voice that said, ‘If you want to live, keep going.’ And as soon as I would doubt my intuition and try to go another way than where it was telling me, something would stop me, a branch would fall on me, I’d stub my toe, or I’d trip. So I was like, ‘O.K., there is only one way to go.’”
Eller looked for other mystical signs as to her fate and what she should do: “I’m looking at numerology and every day I’m thinking, ‘Okay, today’s the day,’ like the number fourteen, what is that significant for?’” (This number could apply to the fifth day of being lost, May 14, or the fourteenth day of being lost, but in either event neither turned out to be significant. As with psychics who generate numbers claimed to be linked in some what with missing persons, the connection—if any—to the situation is arbitrary and unhelpful.)
Upon her rescue she said, “This whole journey was extremely spiritual for me, and I never felt alone, and I never felt fearful. It was an opportunity to overcome fear of everything… and be stripped away of all the comforts of this modern world and see what was left…. I believe that there is a bigger purpose to my story… because I was off the beaten path, this is the result that needed to happen for my experience.”
She received criticism from some who suggested that she had endangered searchers in service of a spiritual journey, and she clarified: “I did at the end of this experience find the silver lining and the bigger picture as to what was happening, but this was never intentional.” She later apologized for putting anyone in harm’s way: “I realize that I was irresponsible, that I should have had my cell phone with me, that I should have had some water with me… I was naive and it was irresponsible of me to head out into the woods that day in the way that I did… It was not my right to be so casual about my personal safety.”
Notably, Eller offered no explanation for why her trusted intuition had so badly misled her (including about how long she’d be gone, whether she’d need her cell phone and water, and of course continually choosing paths that got her more and more lost). But Eller’s is not the only intuition that (should have) played a role in her search. She claimed that search helicopters had flown by on several occasions but didn’t see her despite being in the open, yelling, and waving; she said she felt “invisible.” This is not particularly surprising, of course; it can be very difficult to spot a single person, especially from above, in a vast area.
However there are many cases where intuition is said to have explicitly played such a role in finding lost or injured people. Often it’s said to be in service of psychics who claim that a hunch, feeling, or spiritual guide (or a “voice” no one else could hear) told them where a person was. Intuition is noteworthy only when it succeeds; stories by survivors (or would-be victims) of heeding a voice or feeling averting death or disaster are legion. Rarely noticed are stories in which people were sure they were going to die (in airplane accidents or disasters for example) but were later proven wrong, often emerging unscathed from an incident their intuition told them they’d not survive. I mention this not to be churlish—I’m glad Eller and others survived—but instead to note that if intuition is to be noted (or credited) when it succeeds, it should also be noted (or blamed) when it fails.
One powerful reason that people come to trust their intuition—aside from repeated reinforcements and reminders from safety experts to New Age tenets to do so—is what in psychology is called a confirmation bias toward remembering the hits and forgetting the misses: we easily recall the times when our hunch was right but rarely remember when our instincts led us astray (and of course we can always rationalize it by saying that we were blinded by other factors that clouded our judgment). Thus of course we should trust our intuition, since it seemingly warned us against danger.
But we rarely know what would have happened in the alternative; Yes, choosing one path or decision resulted in a difficult situation turning out okay, but it’s entirely possible that choosing a different path or decision would have resulted in just as good an outcome, if not a better one. The consequences of choices not selected are obvious on game shows, for example, but in real life it’s rarely so clear cut. A person who congratulates herself on bravely choosing to move to a new city and then finding a great career and partner can’t be certain that an equally wonderful career and partner wouldn’t have soon materialized had she stayed where she was, or in a different city. We retroactively justify our decisions based on misplaced confidence that our choices were the “right” ones.
Eller was treated for a fractured leg, skin infection, and sunburn but was otherwise healthy. Eller hoped that her ordeal would provide a lesson for others—not in the danger of trusting your intuition, of course—but instead as a reminder to be prepared when hiking.