Most of us know what our intuition feels like, but what causes it?
Digby Tantam, a professor of psychotherapy at the University of Sheffield, UK, thinks he has the answer and explains all in his new book The Interbrain.
The essential premise of his argument is that human brains are interconnected and can communicate with one another non-verbally (without fancy pieces of technology) through tiny micro-signals that reveal what another person is thinking. Imagine a “Wi-Fi” connecting human brains to one another or an external cloud that allows us to understand how another is feeling and what their motives might be. Tantam calls this “the interbrain”.
This, Tantam argues, is what creates a gut feeling. It is why we “know” something without having a clue why we do. It is what makes laughter contagious, why we automatically smile when our friend smiles, or yawn when the commuter in front of us does the same.
“We can know directly about other people’s emotions and what they are paying attention to,” Tantam told The Telegraph
“It is based on the direct connection between our brains and other people’s and between their brain and ours. I call this the interbrain.”
The idea that a large part of the way we communicate is through non-verbal signals isn’t new. But the interbrain isn’t just about visual cues (say, a raised eyebrow).
According to Tantam, a lot of it could come down to our sense of smell. He argues that tiny changes in someone’s chemistry could emit particles that give away their emotions, whether that’s fear, lust, or something else. Even those with the most polished poker face, so the theory goes, would not be able to hide the scent they give off.
To back up his argument, Tantam points out that the areas associated with smelling have some of the highest levels of neuronal activity in the brain. He also cites their location.
“The area of the brain that is closest to the nose is the orbitofrontal cortex. It might be there because so many of our most basic connections to other people are via smell,” he told The Telegraph.
But this human wi-fi, or “interbrain”, doesn’t connect to everyone. People with autism, Tantam explains, are not plugged into the system like everyone else.
“They are often able to pick up or learn what expressions mean and yet that doesn’t seem to solve the problem of that lack of human connection,” he added.
He also points out the problems associated with video calling and the Internet.
“Emotional contagion occurs at the speed of light, not the speed of electronic transmission. Face-to-face visual input is accompanied by sound, by gesture, by the smell of sweat, by the possibility of touch, and by a connect,” he explained.
For now, though, it seems more research is needed to confirm or debunk his hypothesis.