We are all very familiar with the sensation of hunger. Your stomach feels tight and heavy. You may feel weak or struggle to focus on anything but your own hunger. However, it is not often that we think about all of the internal changes that have to happen for us to feel this way! The absence of readily available food causes a cascade of hormonal and neuronal signals to tell us it’s time to eat (Ahima & Antwi, 2008). Scientists have coined the term “interoception” to describe our ability to sense internal changes to our body (Khalsa & Lapidus, 2016). Interoception is central to our “intuition,” our ability to come to conclusions without the need for conscious cognitive reasoning. Today, let’s break down intuition from a neurological perspective!
As you can probably imagine, studying something as abstract as intuition is a difficult task. However, researchers in Japan have designed experiments to study this phenomenon using a japanese game analogous to chess, called shogi. Expert Shogi players as well as amateurs were shown different configurations of pieces on the board and were tasked to decide their next move in one second. By requiring a quick turnaround between seeing the board and making a move, the researchers intended to capture brain activation from making “gut decisions.” When measuring the brain activity they found significant activation in the basal ganglia, an area of the brain that plays a significant role in learning and memory, of expert players (and a lesser activation in amateurs). This suggests that structures within the basal ganglia may play an important role in our intuitive abilities (Foerde & Shohamy, 2011; Koch, 2015; Wan et al., 2012).
Some scientists believe that it is our ability to engage in interoception, noticing minute changes in our muscles and internal organs, that informs our intuition (Dunn et al., 2010). Through our prior experiences and unconscious learning (via the basal ganglia) may allow our internal sensations to help to guide our actions. That said, it is important to note that just because we have a “gut feeling” does not necessarily mean it is a correct one. Intuition can be incredibly helpful in situations where there is not time to consciously analyze each possible decision, however it is not the be-all, end-all when it comes to decision making. Like all other forms of sensory perception, interoception is another tool in our arsenal to make sense of the world around us as well as the world within us.