I recently went to a lecture by Prof Read Montague, a well-respected academic psychiatrist and neuroscientist. There, he reminded the audience of the surprising and yet validated finding that brain science can predict a person’s political ideology, for example if that person is a Progressive or Conservative with an amazingly high degree of accuracy (Ahn, Kishida et al. 2014).
That alone (as well as with the US presidential election full steam ahead) provides significant food for thought. However he went on to say that brain science could predict share market bubbles and crashes as well!
Prof Montague set up a game which mimicked the market and reliably generated bubbles and crashes. He then arranged for the brain activity to be monitored in the game players using multi-subject functional MRI scans. The shares in this experiment/ game had a “flat” fundamental value. That means their inherent value did not change. However, the market forces of people buying and selling the shares caused the price to go up and down as it would in a normal share market.
What Prof Montague found was the significant implications for practising mindfulness in this environment. He found a predictable pattern in the brains of people who kept gambling on the bubble and ended up in a crash. They had high activation of the Nucleus Accumbens and low activation of the Insula. The people who got out before the crash, in contrast, had much higher activation of the Insula.
The Nuecleus Accumben and “predicting the future”
The Nucleus Accumbens is very interesting in that it becomes very active when we are seeking rewards. It can be overactive in the addictions. Activity in the Nucleus Accumbens of participants peaked just before the bubble burst. In fact, you could predict the imminent bursting of the bubble from the downturn in Nucleus Accumbens activity that just preceded it. Those participants who were able to get out before this happened had a high degree of activity in the Insula. The insular is important for monitoring body sensations and gut feelings. It turns out that people literally do feel it in the gut when something is about to go awry.
The brain science shows that people who are tuned into this have better instincts with the market. It is as if the gut feelings process a lot of information that is impossible for us to access consciously. My personal experience is that these gut feelings are not only useful for predicting the share market, but also for predicting human behaviour in general and even for predicting natural phenomena, such as the behaviour of bushfires.
Using mindfulness to “predict the future”
These findings are important in relation to mindfulness, as we spend a lot of time in our mindfulness practice, and cultivating awareness of our internal body sensations. The body scan practices are one example of this. Even just paying attention to the breath, brings us more in tune with our body sensations. In fact, the research shows that these mindfulness practices activate the Insula in the brain (Hölzel, Lazar et al. 2011). Interestingly, inner body awareness has also been associated with having a greater capacity to regulate your emotions and becoming more empathetic.
So if you want to improve your intuition, your ability to have good hunches and judgment, as well as enhancing your emotional resilience and capacity for empathy, then you might practice mindfulness in the form of body awareness. You can go to our recently updated Mindful Body Scan and Breathing Awareness audio soundtrack at mindfulness.org.au/multimedia-resources.
Ahn, W.-Y., K. T. Kishida, X. Gu, T. Lohrenz, A. Harvey, J. R. Alford, K. B. Smith, G. Yaffe, J. R. Hibbing and P. Dayan (2014). "Nonpolitical images evoke neural predictors of political ideology." Current Biology 24(22): 2693-2699.
Hölzel, B. K., S. W. Lazar, T. Gard, Z. Schuman-Olivier, D. R. Vago and U. Ott (2011). "How does mindfulness meditation work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective." Perspectives on psychological science 6(6): 537-559.