Let’s say you have four decks of cards in front of you and I asked you to draw cards from each deck. Each card revealed a positive or negative dollar amount. What you don’t know is that decks A and B are filled with high risk cards where you can win $100 or lose $350 and decks C and B are more conservative where you can win $50, but only lose $250. The point of this game is to win as much money as possible. Here’s what would happen and what it means to in your life.
After about 10 cards your body would start to sweat a bit in relation to the high risk cards and you would start to get a sense that something about those decks are not in your favor. It would take about 40 to 50 cards for you to actually consciously get it. This is an area of your brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex at work. This is the part of your brain that sifts through all kinds of information in your environment, organizes it, picks up cues from your emotions, and helps come up with the best decision.
In his book Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, Antonio Damasio describes a study he did with a team of people where they took a group of patients who had damage to their prefrontal cortex what he found was that it took them a lot longer to figure out decks A and B were the bad decks because they didn’t have that part of their brain to help them organize and figure out what was the effective and ineffective deck. Even after they did figure it out they kept pulling from those decks not linking their behavior with the consequences.
One reason for this may be that the ventromedial patients didn’t have the same physical stress reaction as the group with their brain intact. Damasio measured skin conductance responses (SCR) to find this out. This lowered their intuition.
The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is the area of your brain behind your nose and the great thing that we know now is that with the finding of neuroplasticity, we can actually grow new neurons by intentionally paying attention.
One thing that we can surmise from Damasio’s study is that this area of the brain is pretty important. Phineas Gage was a railroad worker and in 1848 an explosion caused a steel bar to go through his brain and while he was astonishingly alive, later on his friends would say that Gage was “no longer Gage.” He was now irresponsible and didn’t have a sense of consequence. The bar pierced the prefrontal cortex.
Dr. Sara Lazar, an instructor at Harvard, found that mindfulness practice to be correlated with thicker areas of the prefrontal cortex. So perhaps we might say that intentionally paying attention to the present moment in a disciplined way may improve our discernment and our intuition.
Here is a quick mindfulness practice to get started…