You know more than you think | The Optimist Daily
Today’s Solutions: July 16, 2024

A new study shows your body has a mind of its own.

David Servan-Schreiber | October 2007 issue
Jackie is about to step into an elevator she thought was empty. A man she doesn’t recognize is in it. He looks at her with an overly eager smile. “Getting in?” he asks. She feels her stomach tighten. Something doesn’t feel right. But she doesn’t want to be rude to this gentleman who, after all, hasn’t done anything, and she can’t think of a quick excuse. She gets into the elevator. He attacks her and tries to rape her. The following day as she describes the incident to the police, Jackie realizes she has been peripherally aware of a man shadowing her in the street for days.
That would come as no surprise to Gavin de Becker, a specialist in violent behaviour and author of The Gift of Fear. De Becker believes we have an innate danger-detection system that alerts us unconsciously to threats of violence. Unfortunately, he says, we tend to ignore the messages sent by our bodies. We have learned to repress these messages with the help of our cognitive brains, which are in charge of language and rational thought. The emotional brain—which we have in common with animals—is closely connected to our bodies, and is therefore often a conduit for our intuition. But to take advantage of the valuable information it offers, we must pay attention to what is happening inside our bodies, something most Westerners are not conditioned to do.
Remarkable research carried out at the University of Iowa has confirmed the intelligence and accuracy of our bodies’ reactions. In the study, students played a complex game without any prior explanation of the rules. Electrodes attached to the skin’s surface detected minute signals that accompanied the anticipation of winning or losing. Sometimes the players would win money without understanding how they had done it; other times, they would lose everything they had won without knowing why. When they were asked what they were doing, they told researchers they were making random choices. Nevertheless, 30 minutes into the game, the electrodes were picking up entirely reliable signs: A couple of seconds before a move, the skin was already giving off signals that the player was going to win or lose. It was as if the body had already understood the rules, while the cognitive, conscious brain remained in the dark.
What we call “intuition” is the result of our emotional brains constantly working to sift dozens, even hundreds, of pieces of evidence from our daily lives to come up with a set of rules. When confronted with a situation that calls one of these rules into play (for example, a man hanging around acting strange who could be a threat to our well-being), the body moves into alert mode, even though the source of the danger has not been identified by the mind.
In The Gift of Fear, De Becker makes the case that intuition is a reliable guide: It is always triggered in response to something, he says, and it acts in your best interest. So whatever happens, it makes sense to listen.

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