Malcom Gladwell makes it sound so easy. Need a burst of insight or inspiration? Just blink and the truth will reveal itself to you. For most of us, things are never quite that simple, and yet a new study does suggest that trusting our gut feelings — literally — may indeed help us think better and faster. (More on Time.com: Explaining Why Meditators May Live Longer)
The mind and the body are inextricably entwined, and rarely are their inseparability clearer than when we’re under some kind of mental pressure. The moment we start trying to learn a new skill, make a decision or otherwise think on our feet, our nervous system reacts — with accelerated pulse rate, increased respiration, even sweating. Sometimes we’re barely aware of it; other times (think test-taking) it’s practically all we notice.
To see how these parasympathetic pyrotechnics affect insight and learning, investigators at the Cambridge University Medical School recruited a group of students and taught them all a card game none had ever played before. The game had rules — sort of — but had no clear strategy for how to win. The subjects would thus have to invent tactics on their own. While they played, they also wore skin sensors that measured the amount of sweat on their fingertips as well as a heart monitor. (More on Time.com: Your Latest Health Care Provider: A Plant)
Over time, most of the subjects did develop strategies that helped them make more-decisive moves during the game, but they did not all learn at the same rate. Those who became the most confident the most quickly also turned out to be the ones who had higher heart and perspiration rates. Those whose learning curve was slower generally had equally relaxed physical responses. The natural conclusion: “What happens in our bodies really does appear to influence what does on in our minds,” said lead author Barnaby D. Dunn. In this case, physical acceleration seemed to move the throttle on mental processes too.
But there’s reason for caution. For one thing, the study leaves the cause-and-effect question largely unanswered. Did the physical reaction actually trigger the mental acuity or did mental activity simply stir up the body? More important, just because the subjects developed a strategy during the card game doesn’t mean they developed a good one. Those whose heartbeat, sweating and rate of play all picked were just as likely to win more than the slower folks as they were to lose more. (More on Time.com: Is a Wandering Mind an Unhappy One?)
“We should be careful about following these gut instincts,” concedes Dunn, “as sometimes they help and sometimes they hinder our decision-making.” Gladwellian blinking, it seems, may indeed be a good thing, but just as often we probably want to keep our eyes wide open.