Mangostar/Shutterstock
Source: Mangostar/Shutterstock

On the surface, the prospect of reading a person’s mind sounds implausible. It would appear to require extrasensory perception (ESP) and has no basis in observable reality. Yet as we learn more about how the brain functions, we are understanding that our brains are in fact wired for intuition.

Intuition is a gut feeling about someone or something. Many regard it as an unconscious way of matching patterns. For example, what someone says and how they appear may not quite fit. Consciously, you may not have any reason to question them, but unconsciously, you may feel uneasy.

This kind of “error detection” can be seen as early as infancy. For example, psychologist Andrea Berger and her colleagues showed six-to-nine-month-olds two arithmetic equations using puppets, one correct and one incorrect: 1 (puppet) + 1 (puppet) = 2 (puppets); and 1 (puppet) + 1 (puppet) = 1 (puppet). The infants stared much longer at the incorrect equation. In their brains, a conflict detector was activated every time they saw an incorrect equation. Even in adults, intuition is sometimes described as an experience of coherence or lack thereof.

Intuition as emotional communication.

Like an electrocardiogram (EKG) that measures electrical activity of the heart, an electrogastrogram (EGG) measures electrical activity of the stomach muscles. In 2005, psychologist Dean Radin and his colleague examined the EGG of 26 pairs of people. In each pair, one person relaxed in a heavily shielded chamber while the other person watched a live video of that person from a distance while responding to stimuli that evoked positive, negative, calming or neutral emotions. The maximum EGG was significantly greater for positive and negative as compared to neutral emotions. This indicated that emotions could be transmitted across long distances.    

Intuition as mind-reading.

Studies show that there is a part of our brains that is specialized for reading the intentions and traits of others. Called the mentalizing network, this collection of brain regions works together with the brain’s mirror system. The mentalizing network helps us read the intentions of others, while the mirror system helps us read and experience their emotions.

Intuition as physiologic change.

There is a “gut feeling detector” in the brain called the insula. This region integrates gut feelings with predictive models and investigates a match. It may take a while to reach conscious awareness, but our brains are wired to register this consciously as well.

Teaching yourself to read minds.

Given these various distinctions in how intuition works, we may reflect on how we can increase our sensitivity, awareness, and response to intuition. For each category above, you can take a matching action below:

  • Pay attention to conflict and coherence. Even when you can’t articulate something to yourself, you may use self-talk to keep the intuitive feeling online in your brain: "Something doesn’t add up," or, "I can’t put my finger on what has gone awry.” This will give your brain permission to examine exactly what does not fit and in so doing, identify the incoherence or error.
  • Notice actual gut feelings. As the EGG study showed, your actual gut may be impacted by intuition. In this case, pay attention to gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea or an upset stomach. Ask yourself why you may be feeling sick to your stomach even when there is no obvious reason. Then generate hypotheses to test this against.
  • Identify subtle changes in emotion. During a conversation, you may suddenly notice that you feel differently. This may manifest as slight anxiety, or feeling a little down or even sexually excited. Whatever you feel, pay attention to it, even if nothing is being said that is overtly making you feel that way. Emotions are information, and you can make sense of them later.
  • Register subtle changes in physiology. Sometimes, gut feelings take the form of non-gut sensations — a slightly racing pulse, a missed heartbeat, or breaking out into a mild sweat should all be taken seriously. When you pay attention to these changes, you are instructing your brain to generate hypotheses to explore why these changes have occurred.
  • Build unfocus time into your day. Giving your brain time-off tasks, by going for a walk outdoors or deliberately daydreaming, will help you activate these prediction networks and develop intuition, too.

Subtle or imperceptible feelings or sensations are often ignored because they do not make sense. However, when you learn how to pay attention, you train your brain to explore, and then store “matching” algorithms. Unfocus time will help you activate these algorithms to make more intelligent predictions and improve your ability to read the minds of others.

For more about how you can intelligently unfocus to develop your intuition, read Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind and start your mindset building now

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