At a glance
As a wellbeing and productivity writer, 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 (BQ), 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.
What is body intelligence and what does it have to offer?
Understanding BQ 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 in 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 catching onto this, realising that their robots will be smarter with a body that’s able to sense stimuli and respond locally, rather than always depend on a central processing unit (brain) for instructions.
Listen to your body
As a source of vital intelligence, it makes sense to listen to your body and endeavour to work in tune with it, rather than override its messages. Developing a better BQ is useful in helping people forge a closer, more responsive relationship with their bodies.
This is different from development psychologist Howard Garner’s notion of kinaesthetic, or body intelligence, which was more about athletic ability and dexterity. However, Garner’s theory on multiple intelligences, developed in the 1980s, has helped us to realise that IQ isn’t everything when it comes to living a successful life.
BQ is a different thing. It’s the ability to notice body sensations, 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 a bit further.
Noticing your body sensations (versus disconnecting)
Scientists call this ability our interoceptive awareness (IA) – the ability to notice the internal sensations of the body such as heartbeat, 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 heartbeat – 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.”
Listening to your body (versus dismissing)
This involves taking on board what your body is communicating to you, and endeavouring to understand it.
Rather than fleetingly noticing that you are really tired as you throw back another coffee, you should pause, make a mental note-to-self about your energy levels and even reflect on its 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 (versus overriding)
Once you’ve noticed and listened to your body, 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 override it (“it’s too early to go to bed now!”) and do you push on into the night?
Focusing on the foundational skill of listening to your body is a great way to start raising your BQ.
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.
A higher IA has also been associated with emotional intelligence, enhanced memory and decision-making, according to research conducted at Munich’s Maximilians University.
Rather than treating 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 an at-home 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 of dismissing subtle sensations as insignificant. Remember that every case of repetition strain injury 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.
How can body awareness influence emotional intelligence?
The first skill of emotional intelligence (known as EQ) is the ability to recognise 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 EQ.
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.
What should I listen to? Start with the everyday stuff
Breath: Notice which part of your body moves the most when you inhale and exhale. How fast or slow is your breathing? Is the quality gentle or forced? Upper chest, shallow or fast breathing generally undermines wellbeing – you can gradually adjust your breath with practice.
Muscle tension: Bring your awareness to one part of your body (e.g. neck, shoulders, jaw, forearms) and notice how relaxed or tight your muscles feel. Do you need a stretch?
Hunger: The next time you go to eat, check if you are truly physically hungry. What sensations tell you that this urge to eat is physical (e.g. rumbling stomach, drop in energy) rather than emotional?
Posture: How are you sitting or standing right now? Is your posture comfortable, or are there some body sensations such as pressure, stiffness or pain, that suggest you need to adjust your posture?
Thea O’Connor is a wellbeing and productivity writer, advisor and coach. She specialises in personal sustainability, helping teams and individuals to adopt a healthy, sustainable and effective workstyle. thea.com.au