Scientists are zeroing in on where intuition comes from, biologically
There’s a complex biological system behind our intuition.
You know when that “gut feeling" tells you something? Scientists are now starting to zero in on the origin of that feeling. And yes, you should trust it. Previous research has shown that when it comes to decision-making, going with our gut usually makes for a better outcome than if we go on intellect alone.
For most of Western civilization, it was thought that the emotions were something to master and keep under control. The intellect, since the time of Plato, has held the highest place of esteem. And yet, modern research shows that most of our decisions are made with a mix of emotional and intellectual insights. We tend to rationalize the emotional aspects later on, and ignore altogether an overwhelming number of biases that also lead us to conclusions.
Intuition has been a popular topic among psychological researchers in recent years. Last year, psychologists at the University of New South Wales in Australia, found a way to quantify intuition, and ran a series of experiments on how much "nonconscious emotional information," from the body (or brain), influences the decision-making process.
They had participants interpret a situation. Were white colored dots on a screen moving left or right? Some of the participants encountered subliminal images meant to stimulate their intuitive response. Researchers found that when participants encountered a positive subliminal image, they were more accurate in their interpretations.
Microflora in the colon may play a role in our intuitive sense. Credit: IBM Research, Flikr.
In this latest study, scientists at the University of Exeter in the UK, looked at how a basic drive, such as hunger, could influence the decision-making process. Their results were published in the journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B. It seems that our gut can actually “store" memories, and that hunger can trigger a sophisticated series of calculations that make us arrive at a decision, using our intuition or gut—in the literal sense.
This study surrounds computer models set up to see how well an animal could survive in an environment dotted with predators and where food availability fluctuates. Those animals who searched using their cognitive abilities had about the same chance of survival as those who went on gut feeling alone. Prof. John McNamara was the study's co-author. He told Medical News Today, "If it costs a lot of resources to be so clever." As a result natural selection “found a cheaper way to make decisions."
A rabbit in the wild for instance, might be motivated by hunger to eat some clover. But noticing a patch near a wolf, hidden in the tall grass next to the clover, could indicate not only to steer clear, but also help the bunny realize that there hasn't been a lot of food in this area, lately anyway. This would cause it to move on to a completely new territory. Hunger actually jars the memory, which causes the rabbit to be more careful. This doesn't just lend insight into animal behavior but ours as well, according to the study's lead author, Dr. Andrew Higginson.
He said of the findings, “Our model explains why there is [a] link between our gut and our decisions: hunger can act as a memory telling us there's not been much food around, which it's important to respond to in the wild." He added, "The usefulness of such memory means that animals, including humans, may appear to be processing a great deal of information in the brain when in fact they are just following their gut."
One of two different nerve systems may be the source of intuition or that “gut feeling." Credit: geralt, Pixababy.
Researchers say other feelings may bring up memories “encoded" within an animal or human's gut, in order to aid in decision-making. So where does this come from, biologically? We know that there's an important connection between the microbiome and mental health.
One type of helpful bacteria in the digestive system makes serotonin—the neurotransmitter responsible our sense of well being. Another type produces brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which aids memory and learning, by encouraging the formation of new neural connections. Though residing throughout the digestive tract, research has mainly focused on the colonies of the large intestine.
Another possible source is the vagus nerve, one of the longest in the body. While it was originally thought that signals went one way, from the brain to the gut, we now know that signal traffic travels in both directions.
Dr. Emeran Mayer is a professor of medicine at UCLA. He told Smithsonian Magazine that it actually might be gut microflora, interacting in a collaborative way with the vagus nerve and the brain. “The vagal pathway is activated by serotonin released in the gut from cells that respond to signals from microbiota," he said. Could this also be the source of our intuition?
Another potential pathway is the enteric nervous system or “gut brain." This is a system of nerves, considered a single entity, interwoven throughout the esophagus, stomach, and the intestines.
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It's the first time scientists have discovered an animal that doesn't perform aerobic respiration.
- The animal is a tiny parasite called Henneguya salminicola.
- The parasite infects salmon and lives within the fish muscle, though scientists aren't quite sure how it breaks down nutrients for survival.
- The findings are published in the journal PNAS.
H. salminicola inside of a salmon
An evolutionary advantage<p>Losing that mitochondrial genome appears to have been a less-is-more type of advantage for the parasite.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Myxozoans have gone through outstanding morphological and genomic simplifications during their adaptation to parasitism from a free-living cnidarian ancestor," the authors wrote. "As a highly diverse group with >2,400 species, which inhabit marine, freshwater, and even terrestrial environments, evolutionary loss and simplification has clearly been a successful strategy for Myxozoa, which shows that less is more."</p><p>The researchers aren't quite sure how <em>H.</em> <em>salminicola </em>breaks down nutrients without oxygen. One possibility is that it absorbs molecules from its host. It's hard to tell, however, because the researchers analyzed dead parasites — they'd need to look at parasites living within the fish to get a better understanding of how the creatures operate.</p><p>The discovery highlights how much scientists still have to learn about the diversity of life on Earth. Atkinson told <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/26/world/first-animal-doesnt-breathe-oxygen-scn-trnd/index.html" target="_blank"><em>CNN</em></a> that he expects <em>H.</em> <em>salminicola </em>isn't the only animal that can survive without oxygen, or in even "weirder modes of existence." </p>
The search for alien life<p>One interesting implication of the discovery is what it means for the search for alien life. It's long been thought that, if aliens exist, they'd likely breathe oxygen. After all, it's the best element that we know of for producing large amounts of energy for metabolism, allowing us to "grow large, run and jump and think," as David Catling, a planetary scientist at the University of Washington, told <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/brucedorminey/2012/11/20/why-e-t-would-also-breathe-oxygen/#48fdfed63c55" target="_blank"><em>Forbes</em></a>. <br></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Because of oxygen's chemical advantages and the history of complex life on earth is so intertwined with oxygen levels," he said. "I think E.T. would also breathe oxygen."</p><p>This is one reason why many think Earth-like exoplanets with atmospheres that likely contain oxygen would be good candidates for harboring alien life. But, in a small way, the newly discovered parasite gives reason to think that the search for alien life — and their life-supporting planets — might be far more complicated.</p>
Archaeology clues us in on the dangers of letting viruses hang around.
- A University of Otago researcher investigates the spread of disease in ancient Vietnam.
- The infectious disease, yaws, has been with us for thousands of years with no known cure.
- Using archaeology to investigate disease offers clues into modern-day pandemics.
History-Changing Archaeological Finds<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ed6ad05071e93f257aa0b73f4001c805"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/gydYHHfnLhE?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>While we rightfully look toward infectious disease experts during times such as now, archaeologists also have plenty to offer. A <a href="http://journals.upress.ufl.edu/bioarchaeology/article/view/1173" target="_blank">new research article</a>, published in the journal, Bioarchaeology Journal, turns back the clock to ancient Vietnam. The findings offer important clues about why we need to eradicate COVID-19.</p><p>Lead author Melandri Vlok, a PhD student at the University of Otago in New Zealand (with support from researchers in Australia, Vietnam, Japan, and the UK), investigated a case of yaws that ran through the Neolithic archeological site of Mán Bạc in Northeast Vietnam. </p><p>Yaws remains a common infectious disease in at least 13 tropical countries, with up to a half-million infected each year. Hard skin lesions form on the victim's bodies; they can form painful ulcers. While lesions usually subside within six months, bone and joint pain and fatigue are common. Some cases last many years and result in permanent scars. On occasion, death follows a long battle. </p><p>Subsistence farmers in mainland China have long battled the environment. Finding the right soil and water sources for their crops has been a generational battle. Roughly 4,000 years ago, such farmers made their way into Mainland Southeast China (modern day Vietnam), where, as Vlok writes, "genetic admixture and social transition occurs between foragers and farmers." In 2018, Vlok traveled to Mán Bạc to study the remains of seven skeletons, which included two adults, two adolescents, and two children.</p><p>Her findings help give us perspective on today's proliferation of the coronavirus. As she <a href="https://www.otago.ac.nz/news/news/releases/otago744185.html" target="_blank">says</a>, </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"This matters, because knowing more about this disease and its evolution, it changes how we understand the relationship people have with it. It helps us understand why it's so difficult to eradicate. If it's been with us thousands of years it has probably developed to fit very well with humans." </p>
My Son Sanctuary, Quang Nam, Vietnam.
Credit: Mrkela / Shutterstock<p>Yaws is not the only disease considered in the article. Tuberculosis, brucellosis, and cancers were also discussed. The goal of the research was to identify disease spread through cultures and the chronic problems left behind, sometimes for millennia. Vlok notes how temperature fluctuations in the Mán Bạc region affected a variety of diseases. Yaws appeared to have spread easily due to an abundance of water and vegetation, combined with increased population density—children are more likely to spread this disease.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Pre-industrialized agricultural communities have also been associated with increased incidence of yaws. The coastal region is also slightly warmer and more humid than inland northern Vietnam and therefore more conducive to the spread of yaws."</p><p>The Climate Clock is <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2020/09/21/climate-change-metronome-clock-nyc/" target="_blank">ticking down</a>. We're already experiencing the ravages of this global shift, and it's not going to get any easier if interventions are not immediately legislated. While no single science will help us wrap our heads around the immediate future, Vlok suggests factoring in archaeology. Past precedent matters.</p><p>Gazing back a few hundred generations offers important clues for the future—really, the present—that we must confront. A concerted effort by the World Health Organization in the 1950s couldn't eradicate yaws. Diseases that have an opportunity to hang around will exploit every advantage it can. The blasé attitude too many Americans currently hold about the novel coronavirus's dangers is going to have a reverberating effect through the generations. As Vlok concludes, </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"This shows us what happens when we don't take action with these diseases. It's a lesson of what infectious diseases can do to a population if you let them spread widely. It highlights the need to intervene, because sometimes these diseases are so good at adapting to us, at spreading between us."</p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>
People remember when governments lie to them and it lowers their satisfaction in government officials.
- A recent study measured how the public's trust in government differs when exposed to rumors, government denials, and subsequent verification of the initial rumors.
- The study, conducted in China, also examined whether any changes in trust lasted over a three-week period.
- The results suggest that governments that deem negative information as "fake news" may persuade some people, but over the long term it can cost them in credibility and public satisfaction.
Credit: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images<p><br></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The ability to label claims and explanations that the authorities deem objectionable as fake has long been regarded as a power," the researchers wrote. "Because the revelation of the falsehood of government denials could erode the government's power, it is important to investigate its consequences, particularly in the authoritarian setting."</p><p>In the study, the researchers conducted a survey on three groups of participants. Each group was shown different information regarding a new automobile registration policy, and they were also asked general questions about demographic information and political interests. The study explains:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The first group was exposed to a rumor regarding the government's automobile registration policy (<em>rumor group</em>), the second group was exposed to the government's denial of the rumor (<em>denial group</em>), and the third group was exposed to an event in which the rumor initially denied by the government was verified as true (<em>verification group</em>)."</p><p>Each group then reported how much they believed in the initial rumor and the government denial. The denial and verification groups were also asked to rate their satisfaction with the government's handling of automobile registration.</p><p>The results showed that government denial effectively decreased belief in the rumor, compared to the group that was exposed only to the rumor. Meanwhile, being exposed to a verification of the rumor increased belief in the rumor and decreased belief in the denial. Also, the verification group reported being slightly less satisfied with the government.</p>
Design of survey 1
Credit: Wang et al.<p>But do these effects last? After all, <a href="https://www.jstor.org/stable/40982891" target="_blank">past research</a> suggests that the effects of persuasive communication — say, a negative political ad smearing a candidate — tend to disappear within days.</p><p>To find out, the researchers conducted a follow-up survey three weeks after the first. This time, the survey included only two groups: the verification group from the first survey, and a group of new participants. Both groups were exposed to a rumor and then a government denial.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The difference between the two groups was simply that one of them had previously experienced the revelation of the government's false denial of an online rumor, while the other group did not have such an experience," the researchers wrote.</p><p>The results showed that the verification group — that is, people who had weeks earlier been shown that the government had lied to them — was much less likely to believe in the government's denial. What's more, the verification group was also less satisfied with the government.</p>
Design of survey 2
Wang et al.<p>The findings suggest that governments can lose credibility over the long term when they call something "fake news" but it later proves true.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"As discussed earlier, while authoritarian countries can be awash with rumors and fake news, it is less frequent for the government's false denials to be caught due to the lack of independent news media and fact-checking organizations," the researchers wrote.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It is therefore a vivid and memorable experience to see the government's denial bluntly shown to be false. Unsurprisingly, such an experience would make people less willing to believe a new denial from the government, especially if it is somewhat similar to the one that had been shown to be false."</p><p>Ultimately, calling "fake news" on negative information does seem to persuade some people. But it seems to be a costly short-term strategy, one that comes with the added cost of a dissatisfied public.</p>