Basic instinct

Why do we occasionally feel a nagging worry — as though our body is trying to warn us of a danger we have yet to recognise? It’s always best to listen, says David Servan-Schreiber


Basic instinct

Jackie is about to step into a lift that she thought was empty. A man she doesn’t recognise is already in it. He looks at her with an overly eager smile. ‘Getting in?’ he asks. She feels her stomach tighten; her skin crawl. Something isn’t quite 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 an excuse. She gets into the lift. He attacks her and tries to rape her. The following day, as she describes what happened to the police, Jackie realises that she has been aware of a man shadowing her in the street for some days.

Listening to our bodies

Gavin de Becker, a specialist in violent behaviour, has described how we have an innate danger detection system, which alerts us to any threat of violence. But we tend to ignore messages sent by our bodies. We have learned to repress them with the help of our cognitive brain, which is 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 the conduit for our intuition. To be receptive to it, we have to pay attention to what is happening inside our bodies. Some remarkable research carried out at Iowa State University has confirmed the intelligence of the body’s reactions.

Students played a complex game without any explanation of the rules. Electrodes attached to the skin’s surface detected the minute variations in reactions that accompanied the anticipation of victory or loss.

Sometimes the players would win money without understanding how they’d done it; at other times they would lose everything they’d won, without knowing why. When they were asked what they were doing, they explained they were making random choices. Nevertheless, 30 minutes into the game, the electrodes were picking up entirely reliable signals: a couple of seconds before the end of each game, the skin was 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 brain remained in the dark.

A set of rules

What we call intuition is the result of our brain constantly working — sifting dozens, even hundreds, of pieces of evidence from our daily life in order to come up with a set of rules. These operations are carried out by the emotional rather than the cognitive brain.

When confronted with a situation that calls one of these rules into play (for example, a man smiling at me in a peculiar way could be a threat to my wellbeing), the body moves into alert mode, even though the source of the danger has not been identified. And, as Gavin de Becker points out, there are two good reasons to listen to your intuition: it is always triggered in response to something, and it always acts in your best interest.

So whatever happens, it’s never a waste of time.