Research Paper By Sarah Wiseman
(Transformational Coach, UNITED KINGDOM)
Often in coaching a client comes to the point where they want to make an important, possibly even a life-changing, decision. They see two or more options stretching out before them, they have explored the pros and cons, done research, maybe taken a few steps down one path or another, but they have not yet made a decision.
It’s easy at this point to become overwhelmed by the decision, the pros, and cons, the associated emotions. It all churns around in the client’s conscious mind and they get stuck and don’t take action. A client has all the information and advice that they could possibly need, but they are stuck. The decision weighs heavily on them and it feels like there is only one right and wrong outcome…but how to choose?
In this research paper, I want to explore the other ways that we make decisions, other than just rational, conscious thought. What part does the body play in decision making? What about intuition? And how can we use these ideas in coaching?
I have a feeling that tuning in to our bodies is important, not just while making decisions, but in many aspects of life. After all, we live in our bodies, we are our bodies as well as our minds, and the two should work together. I have practiced tai chi for 25 years and through my practice, I know that I feel better when I connect with my body when I focus attention on my body or my breath when I relax. If I have a difficult decision to make, I need to slow down, come into my body, relax, and that allows me to look at the decision from a fresh perspective, or to receive an answer from somewhere other than my conscious mind.
But that’s my personal experience. I wanted to find out what research is out there about this topic.
What is intuition?
Here are some dictionary definitions of intuition:
- Your intuition or your intuitions are unexplained feelings you have that something is true even when you have no evidence or proof of it [Ref.1].
- the power or faculty of attaining to direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference [Ref.2].
- (knowledge from) an ability to understand or know something immediately based on your feelings rather than facts [Ref.3].
What these definitions have in common is the idea that intuition is based on feelings, resulting in indirect knowledge of the ‘right’ thing to do. It is not based on facts, rational thought, and evidence.
So in order to access intuition to move forward with a decision, a client needs to become aware of how they feel.
What are the feelings?
Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio describes feelings as “mental experiences of body states,”.
An external stimulus leads to changes in the body, such as changes in heart rate, posture, hormone activity, and this is experienced as an emotion. Damasio suggests that feelings arise as the brain interprets this emotion. [Ref. 4].
Our bodies have nets of neurons surrounding the gut and other organs, connecting directly to the spinal column and brain. These neurons gather information from the body and send it to the brain, where it is processed, resulting in changes such as altered breathing rates, heartbeat, hormones, and changes in awareness. We talk of ‘gut feelings’, and research shows that these gut feelings are transmitted to our brains, where they are interpreted and used to inform our behavior.
It is possible for these ‘gut feelings’ to be wrong, often due to a previous negative experience. For example, being bitten by a dog and then feeling scared each time we see a dog. Therefore, it’s important to use rational thought to analyze gut feelings before acting on them, using awareness of emotions and feelings and the rational mind together to form a more considered decision. [Ref. 5&6.].
Interoception and Interoceptive Awareness (IA)
Interoception means being aware of the body’s internal state, having a sense of internal processes like the heartbeat, pain, hunger, and other sensations within the body [Ref. 1].
According to Dr. Dan Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, people who have better interoceptive awareness are people who are more empathic. They have more activity in certain areas of the brain which makes them more self-aware.[Ref. 5].
There is evidence that some people have lost touch with their bodies, which means they may have low IA, have lost touch with their feelings, and find it hard to access and trust their intuition [Ref. 7].
There are many research papers linking interoception with psychological processes. Several studies have shown that contemplative practices such as meditation which teach us to become aware of bodily signals (and have higher IA) can improve the ability to understand emotions. [Ref. 8].
Research has shown that people who are more aware of interoceptive signals such as their heartbeat perform better in laboratory studies of risky decision-making. A study called ‘Interoceptive Ability Predicts Survival on a London Trading Floor’ looked at a real-world example of this. Researchers measured the ability of traders to detect their own heartbeats, thus showing the traders who had a higher interoceptive awareness, and then looked at the relationship between this interoceptive awareness and success in the stock markets. The traders with the highest IA made more profitable trades and survived for longer in the financial markets. [Ref. 9].
While researching interoceptive awareness, I found several papers that mentioned the practices of eastern traditions such as meditation, yoga, and tai chi, as a way to cultivate Interoceptive Awareness. Chinese, Indian, and Tibetan medicine talk of internal energy centers within the body (dantien, chakras), and movement of internal energy (chi, prana). The practices involve become aware of these energy centers, the sensations within them, the movement of chi or prana around the body, and awareness of breath.
In my experience of tai chi practice, my interoceptive awareness has definitely increased over the years. In my practice I focus on what is going on within me, primarily focusing on relaxing, but in order to fully relax, I have to be aware of my real state right now. I have to be aware of where I am tense so that I can relax, and this involves awareness of muscle tension, posture, and probably other things out of conscious awareness, heartbeat, breathing rate, etc.
It does appear that this modern idea of ‘Interoception’ is in fact preceded by thousands of years of bodywork and medical practice which works by increasing awareness of what is happening within the body and uses the feedback between mind and body to alter mental states (for example, using focusing on the breath as a relaxation technique).
New therapies are being developed to improve IA, for example, Mindful Awareness in Body-oriented Therapy. Many modern mindfulness techniques, which are based on older meditation techniques, direct the individual to focus on bodily sensations and processes. [Ref. 10].
After researching interception I then came across the concept of embodied self-awareness and conceptual self-awareness. Conceptual self-awareness can be described as the self-thinking about itself and involves the brain, rational thought, language, information, ideas, insights, awareness of past and present, etc. Embodied self-awareness combines awareness of what is going on inside our bodies, what our senses are telling us, how we are moving and positioned in space, and what our emotions are telling us. Embodied self-awareness can only take place in this present moment. The two types of awareness are both important and powerful when used together. [Ref. 11].
Embodied self-awareness is made up of:
Interoception – awareness of feelings and sensations arising from inside the body
Exteroception – awareness of what is coming in through the senses
Proprioception – awareness of the position of the body in space.
Summary – Decision making, intuition and body awareness
Intuition is an important tool in decision making. Intuition is based on feelings, resulting in indirect knowledge of the ‘right’ thing to do. It is not based on facts, rational thought, and evidence. Good decision making makes use of both the rational mind and intuition.
Modern science has explored the link between being aware of the sensations within our body (interoception or interoceptive awareness) and found that IA has a variety of impacts on psychological processes, including intuition. Eastern medicine and practices such as tai chi, mediation, mindfulness, and yoga have developed techniques that increase interoceptive awareness by becoming aware of the body, breath, and the subtle energy/processes within the body. These practices can also increase exteroception and proprioception, thus leading to better-embodied self-awareness.
Therefore, techniques to increase body awareness, interoceptive awareness, and embodied self-awareness, techniques which bring us out of our heads and into our bodies, could help us to access our intuition and help with decision making.
As usual with coaching there is no ‘one size fits all’ technique or question that will allow clients to get out of their head and into their body, to listen to their body, and access their intuition. Here are some ideas that could be useful to help clients make the shift:
A coach can help a client to identify where they are stuck in the decision-making process. If a client realizes that they are stuck in thinking and /or information gathering about their decision, the coach could encourage them to think of other ways to make a choice, other than rational thought. For example:
- If you tune in to your body, what does each option feel like to you?
- What environment do you need to be in to make this decision?
- Where in your body do you feel the ‘right’ decision?
- How do you need to feel, in order to make this decision?
- Imagine you use intuition to make this decision. What do you need to do in order to hear your intuition?
- What does intuition mean to you?
- You said you feel fearful about this decision. If you tune in to your body, what is beneath the fear?
Having to make and carry out a decision can make us anxious and tense. A coach can help a client to tune into their body and find ways to relax, which can help with the decision making. For example:
- Asking the client what their preferred way of relaxation is and helping the client create an action plan to enable them to do the relaxing activity while they are in a period of change.
- Encouraging the client to tune in to their body during the coaching session by using a body scan or mindful breathing.
The research on interoception, body, and emotional awareness suggests that practices based in eastern traditions such as meditation, mindfulness, tai chi, and yoga help people to ‘tune in’ to their bodies and be more aware of their internal sensations and emotions. If a client already practices one of these, a coach could explore with the client how their practice could be used to help them with their decision making. Questions such as those below may be helpful:
- What is your body telling you [about this decision or an aspect of the decision]?
- What insights could your meditation practice bring to this decision?
- How could you use your yoga practice to help you access your intuition?
A coaching tool from Martha Beck could be used to help clients become aware of how they feel when they make certain decisions. The tool is described in the blog post ‘Body Truth, Mind Lie: How to Make the Right Decision’https://marthabeck.com/2015/07/make-right-decision/ [Ref.12.]:
- There is a coaching model called Somatic Coaching which combines bodywork, body awareness, and coaching. This requires undertaking a training program. [Ref.13].
- There is a coaching course called ‘The Power Of Embodied Coaching’, which delves deeper into this topic. https://www.coachesrising.com/powerofembodiedtransformation/ [Ref 14].
There are plenty of stories of people switching off their conscious minds and doing something with their body (like taking a shower or driving) and suddenly getting a great insight, a ‘Eureka moment’. Explore with a client how they can access these kinds of moments, for example:
- Take a shower
- Go for a drive
- Go for a walk
- Play with your kids
- Go away for the weekend
- Do something creative
Sometimes a client is faced with an important decision and they get stuck in thinking about the decision, stuck in ‘analysis paralysis’, they are fearful or otherwise unable to move forward with the decision. Interoceptive awareness, or awareness of what is going on inside the body, and embodied self-awareness can be used to help the client to access their intuition. Combining this intuition with rational analysis can then be a powerful way to help the client to make a decision.
In terms of my coaching practice, doing this research has really made me want to learn more about this subject and how it could be used with clients. Perhaps I can merge my own experience of developing body awareness through Tai chi with coaching. Perhaps I could learn other techniques to help clients to access embodied self-awareness. I’m very much at the start of this journey and looking forward to seeing where it takes me.
Collins English Dictionary https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/
Miriam Webster Dictionary https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/intuition
Cambridge Dictionary https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/intuition
Jason Pontin, interview with Antonio Damasio. The Importance of Feelings https://www.technologyreview.com/s/528151/the-importance-of-feelings/
Daniel Goleman. The Brain Science Behind Gut Feelings https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20140309142357-117825785-the-brain-science-behind-gut-decisions?trk=mp-reader-card
Key Step Media. Making Difficult Decisions https://www.keystepmedia.com/making-difficult-decisions/
We’ve Lost Touch with Our Bodies https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/weve-lost-touch-with-our-bodies/
Cynthia J. Price and Carole Hooven. Mindfulness, Interoception, and the Body: A Contemporary Perspective. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00798/full
Narayanan Kandasamy, Sarah N. Garfinkel, Lionel Page, Ben Hardy, Hugo D. Critchley, Mark Gurnell, and John M. Coates. Interoceptive Ability Predicts Survival on a London Trading Floor. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27641692
Mindful Body Awareness Research on Interoceptive Awareness Training https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/mindful-body-awareness/201902/research-interoceptive-awareness-training
Amanda Blake. Your Body is Your Brain. Leverage your somatic intelligence to find purpose, build resilience, deepen relationships, and lead more powerfully. Trokay Press.
Martha Beck. Body Truth, Mind Lie: How to Make the Right Decision. https://marthabeck.com/2015/07/make-right-decision/
Somatic Coaching Certification https://strozziinstitute.com/somatic-coaching-certification/
Coaches Rising & The Strozzi Institute. The Power of Embodied Coaching.https://www.coachesrising.com/powerofembodiedtransformation/