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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Hodges

Decision-making, Intuition and Interoception

Updated: Nov 10, 2023

Have you ever had the sense of intuitively knowing precisely what to do at certain moments in your life? Accompanying this is that strange feeling of 'being in the zone', a heightened sense of awareness and a profound feeling of being in the right place at the right time.

The answer as to how this might be is thought to lie in the field of interoception.

Interoception is the ability to sense and perceive the internal state of the body. This includes things like heart rate, breathing, muscle tension, and gut feelings. Intuition is the ability to acquire knowledge without conscious reasoning. It is often described as a gut feeling or a sixth sense.

There is a growing body of research that suggests that interoception and intuition are closely related. For example, studies have shown that people who are better at perceiving their own bodily sensations are also better at making intuitive decisions. Additionally, people who have damage to the areas of the brain that are involved in interoception often experience difficulty making intuitive decisions.

There is some evidence that musicians have enhanced interoceptive abilities. For example, one study found that professional singers were better at discriminating between their own heartbeats and the heartbeats of others than non-musicians. The same study found that musicians were more accurate at tracking their own breathing than non-musicians.

Musicians often talk of the experience of being "in the zone" during musical performance. akin to a peak experience. Musical training involves deeply learnt behaviours which when brought together in performance are likely to increase the possiblity of states of intense joy, of fulfilment, and a deep sense of well-being.

The Musician's Way” points to the appropriate use of good intuitive decision making skills and that a musician (amateur or professional) may well have acquired enhanced interoceptive capabilities through the practice required to learn their instrument.

There are a number of ways in which the practice of a musical instrument can enhance interoceptive capabilities and thus improve good decision-making:

  • Attention: Musicians must be able to focus their attention on the task at hand, even in the midst of distractions.

  • Memory: Musicians must be able to remember and recall musical notation, as well as the physical movements required to play their instrument.

  • Problem-solving: Musicians must be able to solve problems on the fly, such as when they make a mistake during a performance.

  • Decision-making: Musicians must make decisions about how to interpret the music, how to use their breath and body, and how to interact with other musicians.

  • Increased brain connectivity: Studies have shown that playing an instrument can increase the connectivity between different areas of the brain. This can lead to improved cognitive function and decision-making skills.

  • Enhanced self-regulation: Playing an instrument requires a high degree of self-regulation. Musicians must be able to control their emotions, focus their attention, and manage their time effectively. These skills can also be applied to decision-making.

  • Improved creativity: Playing an instrument can help to improve creativity. Musicians must be able to come up with new ideas and solutions to problems. This can be a valuable skill in decision-making.

There are several possible explanations for why musicians might have enhanced interoceptive abilities. One possibility is that musical training helps to improve the brain's ability to process bodily signals. Another possibility is that musicians are more focused on their own bodies and sensations than non-musicians, thus developing a greater sense of trust in their body's ability to provide timely information. When we are able to accurately perceive our bodily sensations, we are more likely to trust our gut feelings and intuition. This can be helpful in making decisions, as it can help us to avoid making choices that are not in our best interest. Interoception can help musicians to be more aware of their bodies and how they are feeling and helps them to make better performance decisions. If a musician is feeling tense, they may need to take a few deep breaths to relax before they continue playing. Interoception may well explain what a musician means when they say they feel 'in tune' with their instruments. There is a feeling of connection which in some way helps a musician to produce a more refined sound. For example, a violinist may be able to feel the vibrations of the strings through their body, which can help them to produce a more resonant sound. Interoception helps musicians to be more expressive and enhances the connection with their audience creating a more memorable performance.

Our bodies are constantly sending us signals about our environment and our emotional state. These signals are often subtle and difficult to consciously notice. However, people who are good at interoception are better at picking up on these signals and using them to make decisions. To the extent that it is possible to practice intuition, musicians are well-placed to develop interoceptive skills. ("The extraordinary ability of musicians to process multiple streams of auditory, visual, kinaesthetic and intero/extero/proprioceptive information within an affective environment has also led researchers to consider the psycho-socio-emotional function of music within our society."

At the present time, research is strongly indicating that these two abilities are closely related and that they play an important role in our decision-making process as witnessed in musical performance.

This all seems to suggest that employing the insights in The Musician’s Way could be a means of making better decisions especially when an in-the-moment decision is called for. The practice required, even if it is purely on an amateur basis, to play a musical instrument is an investment in interoceptive capabilities which are of course then available beyond the field of music.

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