Danger! Danger! The Science Behind Gut Feelings

By Matthew Harwood

It's a common, almost intuitive feeling among security professionals: Something's wrong here. Many call it the gut feeling.

Typically seen as an almost extrasensory, mysterious power, new research is beginning to show why some of us can perceive danger more acutely and earlier than others, reports The New York Times.

In the third installment of a series devoted to brain power, the Times explores new research conducted by Army researchers that proves when detecting threats, nothing beats the subtle forces making up the human mind.

Studies of members of the Army Green Berets and Navy Seals, for example, have found that in threatening situations they experience about the same rush of the stress hormone cortisol as any other soldier does. But their levels typically drop off faster than less well-trained troops, much faster in some cases.

In the past two years, an Army researcher, Steven Burnett, has overseen a study into human perception and bomb detection involving about 800 military men and women. Researchers have conducted exhaustive interviews with experienced fighters. They have administered personality tests and measured depth perception, vigilance and related abilities. The troops have competed to find bombs in photographs, videos, virtual reality simulations and on the ground in mock exercises.

The study complements a growing body of work suggesting that the speed with which the brain reads and interprets sensations like the feelings in one’s own body and emotions in the body language of others is central to avoiding imminent threats.

Another study found that a certain portion of the brain, the insula, is more active when a Navy Seal spots an angry face than a new enlistee. This disparity begs the question: Are the individuals that make up elite special forces naturally more sensitive to danger or is it a skill an enlistee can pick up with training? Is it nature or nurture or a little bit of both?

Finding an answer should excite the curiousity of not only service members but security professionals everywhere.

♦ MRI brain scan from msmiffy/Flickr


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