Monday, October 12, 2009

The body can be far ahead of the mind

I just read a fascinating post about a new research finding that people who are better able to count their own heartbeats did better when playing a computer gambling game. It was so interesting, in fact, that I'd love to quote the whole article here!

Instead I'll just excerpt a portion that deals with an earlier experiment that involved test subjects drawing cards from different decks of cards. The decks are stacked; some offered higher rewards than others.

At first, the card selection process is entirely random. The players have no reason to favor any specific deck, and so they sample from each pile, searching for money-making patterns. On average, people have to turn over about 50 cards before they began to only draw from the profitable decks. It takes about 80 cards before the average experimental subject can explain why they favored those decks. Logic is slow.

But Damasio wasn't interested in logic. He was interested in the body. He attached electrodes to the palms of the subjects and measured the electrical conductance of their skin. In general, higher levels of conductance in the skin signal nervousness and anxiety. (That's why our hands get clammy before a big test.) What Damasio found was that after drawing only 10 cards the hands of the experimental subjects got "nervous" whenever they reached for the negative decks. While the brain had yet to completely understand the game (and wouldn't for another 40 cards), the subject's hands "knew" what deck to draw from. Furthermore, as their hands grew increasingly sweaty, they started drawing more and more frequently from the advantageous decks. The unconscious feelings ricocheting throughout their body preceded their conscious decision. (For more on the body loop, check out Descartes' Error.) The hand led the mind.

This experiment reminds me of the Landmark Education course I took in Costa Rica in 2006 called Structural Connections; I wrote about my experiences in it here. Like my life coaching training at the Coaches Training Institute, one of the key themes was listening to your body and learning what it's trying to tell you. And a segment in What the BLEEP Do We Know? examines how we can, in a sense, become "addicted" to our own internal state: the rush of neurotransmitters, hormones, and other chemical messengers that result from experiences like eating, flirting, and falling in love.

A lot of the body's messages get filtered through our unconscious minds... imagine the insights available if you can bring that input directly into your consciousness.

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