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Copyright Thea O’Connor

With benefits to health and workplace performance, body intelligence is a must-have for a successful career.  

I meet a lot of smart people through my work, including lawyers, teachers, accountants, journalists and academics.

When I talk to them, through interviews, in seminars or as a health coach, I can tell they have a high IQ and often a high emotional intelligence as well.  When it comes to their body intelligence however, many of them struggle.  They tell me how difficult they find it to attend to the most basic needs of the body: sufficient rest, movement and good food.  Their IQ isn’t making it any easier.  

So what exactly is Body Intelligence and what does it have to offer? 

Understanding Body Intelligence starts with recognition that the body itself is incredibly smart, and intelligence is not only found in the brain, but also in our cells and organs.

“Proteins form unfathomably complex networks of chemical reactions that allow cells to communicate and to ‘think’ – essentially giving the cell a ‘cognitive’ ability, or a ‘brain’,” says Queensland University of Technology researcher Dr Robyn Araujo, referring to her research published in Nature Communications [1] this month (May 2018).

This kind of research lends weight to the concept of ‘embodied cognition’, the idea that the body can play a role in thinking and decision making.  Artificial intelligence scientists are twigging to this, realising that their robots will be smarter with a ‘body’[2] that’s able to sense stimuli and respond locally, rather than always depend on a central processing unit (brain) for instructions. 

As a source of vast intelligence, it makes sense to listen to the body and endeavour to work in tune with it, rather than over-ride its messages. 

That’s the pragmatic definition of Body Intelligence I use to help people forge a closer, more responsive relationship with their bodies. This is different from development psychologist Howard Garner’s definition of kinaesthetic or body intelligence, which was more about athletic ability and dexterity.   Garner’s theory on multiple intelligences, developed in the 1980s, helped us realise IQ isn’t everything when it comes to living a successful life.

B.I. =  the ability to register, or notice body sensations, to ‘read’ or listen to them, then respond in a way that respects the body’s needs, so enhancing our quality of life.  Let’s break this down.

Register: Noticing your body sensations (vs disconnecting).  Scientists call this ability our interoceptive awareness (IA) – the ability to notice the internal sensations of the body such as heart beat, breath, digestive symptoms, pain, pressure.  This sounds really basic.  Don’t we all do this?

Some do it better than others.  Studies that look at people’s ability to notice the tempo of their heart beat – a commonly used study measure of IA  – reveal quite a range in people’s ability to do this accurately.

Others have developed a remarkable ability to disconnect from the body altogether and not just in response to a trauma.

A colleague recently shared with me what his life was like in the lead up to experiencing burnout: working 10 to 12 hour days, drinking lots of alcohol and coffee, smoking, and staying up late.  Curious, I asked, ‘ what did you notice in your body at that time?’  His response? ‘Nothing.’ 

Read: Listening to your body (vs dismissing)

This involves taking on board what your body is communicating to you, and endeavouring to understand it.  So rather than fleetingly notice that you are really tired as you throw back another coffee, you pause, make a note-to-self about your energy levels and even reflect on possible causes. It’s important to note that some imbalances are hard to detect, such as elevated blood sugars in the early stages of diabetes, or high blood pressure, so check-ups and tests from your doctor need to be added to the mix of data that we ‘listen’ to.   

Responding (vs over-riding)…intelligently

Once you’ve noticed and understood your body, then you have the chance to respond in a body-wise manner.  What do you do when you feel that first wave of tiredness descend after dinner?  Do you use it as a cue to start winding down? Or does your mind over-ride it (‘it’s too early to go to bed now!”) and you push on into the night watching more funny cat videos on Facebook?

Focusing on the foundational skill of listening to your body is a great way to start raising your body intelligence.  Improving your IA can improve health and prevent more serious health problems developing.  This is seen in the area of eating and weight regulation where a higher IA helps people regulate their eating and protect against eating disorders, according to research published in the International Journal of Women’s Health[3] 2010.

A higher IA has also been associated with emotional intelligence[4],  enhanced memory and decision making, according to research conducted at the Maximilians University, Munich.[5]

So rather than treat the body and its messages as an annoying interference with your professional success, grant your body the authority it deserves – listen to it, learn from it and look up to it – it’s smarter than you think.  

Everyday ways to raise your BQ

  • Schedule a body scan or simply pause a few times a day to check-in with your body – what sensations or symptoms do you notice?  Good points of focus include the quality of your breath, muscle tension, hunger (is it physical or emotional?) and  posture.
  • Beware dismissing subtle sensations as insignificant.  Remember that every case of RSI starts with a niggle, every case of burnout begins with everyday tiredness.
  • Select just one body signal that you don’t normally pay much attention to, and practise responding sooner, rather than later. Feeling thirsty? Drink water now.  Energy slumping? Take a short walk.  Feel a little stiff? Adjust your posture. Here are 10 ways you can start listening to your body.

How can body awareness influence emotional intelligence?   The first skill of EQ is the ability to recognize what you are feeling.  All emotions are accompanied by a sensation in the body, so the better you are at noticing your elevated heart rate, or butterflies in your stomach, for example, the better your EI. 

How can body awareness influence decision making?

Imagine saying ‘yes’ to something when you really needed to say ‘no’.  How would you register this discrepancy? You’d feel it in your body as some stress-related symptom, letting you know you are out of alignment. If you’d listened to this and acted on it, you could have made a more congruent decision. 

Thea O’Connor is a wellbeing and productivity writer, advisor and coach.

She specialises in helping leaders,  teams and individuals to adopt a healthy, sustainable and effective work habits.

[1] published in Nature Communications

Does intelligence require a body? [2] EMBO Rep. 2012 Dec; 13(12): 1066–1069. 

[3] Int J Womens Health. 2010; 2: 375–379.

[4] Schneider TR, Lyons JB, Williams M (2005) Emotional intelligence and autonomic self-perception: Emotional abilities are related to visceral acuity. Pers Indiv Differ 39:853-861.

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