Previously, I wrote about the new trend of “personal biological monitoring,” citing several new and future technologies for allowing people to track a variety of physiological metrics to better understand their health on a moment to moment basis. (As I write this, I’m wearing a Smart Health watch that I got from Dr. Jay Williams who spoke about personal biological monitoring at the recent Global Spa and Wellness Summit. It is a nice, attractive analog watch, but if I touch the watch with two fingers from my opposite hand, I can see my heart rate appear digitally on the glass. Nifty.)
New research suggests that personal biological monitoring may be even more important than previously thought. As we learn more about how the body and mind work together, we are realizing that the body sometimes knows more than the mind.
This is one of the key ideas of a new book, “The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust” about the psychology and physiology of financial traders on Wall Street. The author, John Coates, is a former Wall Street trader who went back to school to study neuroscience to understand how testosterone and other physiological factors create “the winners effect” and how that might influence our financial markets.
One of the things Coates found in his research was that the physiology of the traders (e.g. their testosterone levels) could predict their success in the market. In other words, their body knew–before their minds did–how they would do that day.
This is not only true in financial trading. Coates gives numerous examples from the sports world: a penalty kick in soccer, a baseball pitch, a tennis serve, or the jab of a professional boxer. All of these things take less than a half a second. Our conscious minds don’t even have time to register it and yet the bodies of trained athletes react without conscious awareness. Muhammad Ali’s jab, for example, is clocked at about 40 milliseconds. According to Coates, it takes 100 milliseconds for an image on the retina to register in the brain.
Coates also gives a military example from All Quiet on the Western Front:
A man is walking along without thought or heed;–suddenly he throws himself down on the ground and a storm of fragments flies harmlessly over him;–yet he cannot remember either to have heard the shell coming or to have thought of flinging himself down.
Sometimes, the body knows first.
There are scientists on human consciousness who have studied this. Benjamin Libet, for example, did research in the 1970s showing that subjects’ brains were preparing to move their finger milliseconds before their conscious minds had even made the decision to do so. Libet’s research brings up interesting questions about free will. “Consciousness is largely an override mechanism,” says Coates. Our automatic systems seem to be the default, and the body is often ahead of the brain.
Psychologist William James also proposed the idea that our emotions result from the actions that we take with our bodies, and not the other way around. We don’t run away from a bear because we feel fear. We feel fear because our body has started running. Our bodies protect us from our slow consciousness by bypassing the mind altogether and using “preattentive processing” to observe and adapt to whatever is happening around us.
This, according to Coates, is what happens every day on the trading floors of our world’s financial markets. The shifts in the world’s markets register in the physiology of the traders before they cross their conscious awareness. For example, Coates describes Martin, the trader who preconsciously senses a change in the markets: “Unbeknownst to Martin’s conscious brain, a subsonic tremor has just shaken the market, and silent shock waves radiate from the screens, reverberating in the cavern of his body. Something is not right.” Valuable information to have when getting a few seconds head start could translate into millions of dollars.
This is where personal biological monitoring comes in. What if we could tap into the knowledge of our bodies? What if our diverse physiological monitoring systems could grant us important information that our minds may be missing? The dashboard of the body shows us heart rate, muscle tension, digestion, vascular resistance, sweating, bronchial contractions, blushing, pupil dilation, facial expressions and more: all potential cues to things that may be happening beyond our awareness.
Here’s Coates: “In the future we might even be able to articulate the specific messages carried by our interoceptive pathways. Our conscious brain may have difficulty doing so, but science can help by intercepting and interpreting these messages. Someday we will be able to listen to our bodies and the subconscious regions of our brains and heed their warnings.”
Coates’ research already has a direct application in finance, where traders’ hormone levels are a better predictor of risk than their own intelligence. But once we accept that the body knows first and that our minds are along for the ride, the possibilities are endless and fascinating.
References and recommended reading:
Coates, J. (2012). The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust. The Penguin Press HC.