After being diagnosed with the liver cancer that was to take his life a few years later, Steve Jobs gave a heartfelt talk to a graduating class at Stanford University. His advice: “Don’t let the voice of others’ opinions drown out your inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.” But how do you hear “your inner voice,” that your heart and intuition somehow already know?
You need to depend on your body’s signals.
Monitoring of our internal organs is done by the insula, tucked behind the frontal lobes of the brain. The insula maps our body’s insides via circuitry linking to our gut, heart, liver, lungs—every organ has its specific spot. This lets the insula act as a control center for organ functions, sending signals to the heart to slow its beat, the lungs to take a deeper breath.
Attention turned inward toward any part of the body amps up the insula’s sensitivity to the particular area. Tune in to your heartbeat and the insula activates more neurons in that circuitry. How well people can sense their heartbeat, in fact, has become a standard way to measure their self-awareness. The better people are at this, the bigger their insula.
The insula attunes us to more than just our organs; our very sense of how we are feeling depends on it. People who are oblivious to their own emotions (and also, tellingly, to how other people feel) have sluggish insula activity compared with the high activation found in people highly attuned to their inner emotional life. At the tuned-out extreme are those with alexithymia, who just don’t know what they feel, and can’t imagine what someone else might be feeling.
Listen to your gut
Our “gut feelings” are messages from the insula and other bottom-up circuits that simplify life decisions for us by guiding our attention toward smarter options. The better we are at reading these messages, the better our intuition.
Take that tug you might sometimes feel when you suspect you’re forgetting something important just as you’re leaving on a big trip. A marathon runner tells me of a time she was on her way to a race four hundred miles away. She felt that tug—and ignored it. But as she continued on down the freeway, it kept coming back. Then she realized what was tugging at her: she had forgotten her shoes!
A stop at a mall that was just about to close saved the day. But her new shoes were a different brand from the ones she normally wore. As she told me, “I have never been more sore!”
Somatic marker is neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s term for the sensation in our body that tells us when a choice feels wrong or right. This bottom-up circuitry telegraphs its conclusions through our gut feelings, often long before the top-down circuits come to a more reasoned conclusion.
The ventromedial prefrontal area, a key part of this circuitry, guides our decision making when we face life’s most complex decisions, like who to marry or whether to buy a house. Such choices can’t be made by a cold, rational analysis. Instead we do better to simulate what it would feel like to choose A versus B. This brain area operates as that inner rudder.
There are two major streams of self-awareness: “me,” which builds narratives about our past and future; and “I,” which brings us into the immediate present. The “me” links together what we experience across time. The “I,” in stark contrast, exists only in the raw experience of our immediate moment.
The “I,” our most intimate sense of our self, reflects the piecemeal sum of our sensory impressions—particularly our body states. “I” builds from our brain’s system for mapping the body via the insula.
Such internal signals are our inner guides, helping us at many levels, from living a life in keeping with our guiding values to remembering our running shoes.
As a veteran performer at Cirque du Soleil told me, for their grueling routines performers strive for what she called “perfect practice,” where the laws of physical motion and rules of biomechanics come together with timing, angles, and speed, so you get “more perfect more of the time—you’re never perfect all of the time.”
And how do the performers know when they’re nearing perfection? “It’s the feeling. You know it in your joints before you know it in your head.”
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