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Your Sixth Sense: Can You Trust It?

September 23, 2013

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"How do I know you're not an axe murderer planning to store my limbs in the freezer?"

"Do I look like an axe murderer?"

Well now there's the question. Does he look like an axe murderer? Answer ... yes ... c'mon admit it; that turns you on a little bit! Answer ... no ... what made you say it then?

We often know little about the backgrounds of many of the people we meet and yet we'll invite them into our homes, tell them our life stories, maybe have sex with them and possibly never see them again; all based on what sort of judgements exactly?

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You often hear people boasting that they're a good judge of character and can spot a "wrong 'un" a mile off but these sorts of assumptions are exactly what's at the bottom of many problems associated with HIV infection and even disclosure. Someone may look trustworthy; they have that kind of face and when they tell you they're negative, you believe them. In fact you may be trusting in that intangible thing called the sixth sense. You may look at a profile on line, love the photos and even forgive the "clean and dd-free, UB2" crap because you have that "gut feeling" that this person is not only okay but worthy of sharing bodily fluids with. It may not even be online and maybe no words will be spoken. You look at someone across a crowded floor ... boom ... into bed you go!

Now really, what sort of a basis is that for a sexual encounter and yet many of us do it and the younger you are, the more likely it is to happen? In these cases, the sixth sense is primarily pheromone based; if they're hot, they're hot. Chemistry, spark, whatever; if that person clicks your sexual, sixth sense buttons, it takes a strong man (or woman) to say, "Okay, all that aside, what's he/she really like as a person?"

The sixth sense is a powerful instinct and one which can as easily save you from danger, as propel you into it. It goes by many different names too: hunch, instinct, intuition, ESP (extra sensory perception), telepathy, presentiment, clairvoyance, gut feeling, premonition and third eye. All these words try to describe that feeling you get when something's wrong, something's right, something's going to happen, or has already happened somewhere else. It can even apply to someone stepping into your personal space and you feel slightly violated as a result.

The sixth sense is therefore what happens when you perceive something from outside the normal five human senses of touch, smell, hearing, taste and sight. It is thought that humans have a subconscious way of detecting and identifying chemical signals that our environment gives off, including during interaction with other animals. Other animals still use clearly much better defined instincts based on sensory perception of the world around them and use them frequently for fight or flight, migration, defense and offense. Humans however, seem to have lost their edge in that respect, possibly due to other parts of the brain compensating and devising other strategies and also due to the overload of information and distraction that the modern human brain has to process. Therefore, when we experience a sixth sense about something, it is possibly a reaction to chemical changes in our immediate environment, or a response to chemical signals from other sentient beings. We've lost the ability to "read" these directly but nevertheless often get a strong feeling that a certain course of action is necessary.

Have you ever felt that your dog or other pet knows when you are upset, or angry or pleased and responds accordingly? It's very possible that they're "reading" the changes in chemical, or electrical signals you're giving off. Have you ever wondered why animals also have the ability to migrate thousands of miles, through all sorts of weather and return to places they were born or bred in? They are probably 'reading' the earth's invisible magnetic fields which lay out a satnav-like map for them. Some people also have an unerring sense of direction but there's no logical reason for it. These are all skills most humans have lost over time and only occasionally reappear to warn us of something about to happen. You may even be one of those people who get a strong sense that something has just happened miles away and then the telephone rings ... or the telephone rings and you know who it is (without caller-ID). There's so much we don't understand about this extra sensory ability but there's little doubt that its vestiges are still within us. Maybe, as LGBT individuals with HIV in the back pack we should open ourselves to our sixth senses and if possible, try to fine tune them.

Just as most animals do, analyzing body language may have a strong connection to any sixth sense we might have about someone; it's a survival instinct. For instance, there may be something in the eyes that doesn't ring true; we don't actually have to identify that but can just sense it and feel insecure. Somebody's whole physical presence may feel threatening, or intimidating, or conversely you may see them as a walkover, or too passive. Either way, you're making subconscious judgements based on very little logic.

When does the sixth sense kick in? It's often claimed that we make judgements about people within 20 seconds of meeting them but many people will be getting on fine with someone for a period of time before you suddenly get the feeling something's not right and you should get away. There's even a twenty question scientifically accepted test which can establish if someone is psychopathic or not (really, it's true) but it's not exactly ideal for a first contact situation.

It's also clear that our intuitions can let us down. Look at how easy it is to be fooled by optical illusions and apply that to interpreting clues from people who are, by definition, not being their normal selves during a flirting phase. Our first impressions of someone may therefore turn out to be completely wrong but that's maybe because we're jumping to conclusions based on our experiences and learned stereotypes. You probably can't really think a sixth sense through either. It's a gut reaction and out of your control. You're feeling it from beyond your normal sensory range but there's little doubt you can get it wrong and can be fooled by it.

Mind reading would be useful in the dating game. MRI scanners can already accurately interpret brain activity and in effect, "read thoughts." It may not be too many years before we can have portable MRI technology and read someone's mind via Google Glass or whatever eye-gadget they think up for us. Embarrassing idea really that the guy chatting you up may take offense at your unspoken thought that you wouldn't sleep with him in a million years. Hmm! Maybe mind reading's not such a good idea so maybe we can train our sixth sense to work better and more accurately.

As LGBT people living with HIV, can we nurture our intuitive senses and use them as life tools and find ways of stimulating our bullshit monitors so that they're more accurate?

We communicate in different ways these days. We talk to people online almost as much as in face to face situations, so picking up clues about people via a third-party medium demands different skills. Even if we use webcams to meet each other, we may be at a disadvantage because we can't use the full range of our senses and detect chemical changes in the atmosphere between us. So we have to use our eyes and ears to make the necessary judgements. That said, people are becoming more and more adept in subconsciously interpreting another person's online text and use of language. You probably know the feeling when you read someone's profile or chat stream and immediately dismiss them as being unsuitable purely because of the tone of their personal details. So the unfortunate person who only communicates in certain clichés, or describes him or herself within the parameters of what they themselves are looking for may be rejected and possibly unjustifiably. However, there's a lid for every pot, so that approach may well appeal to people looking for precisely that. My point is that we are increasingly using instinctual responses to react to someone's online presence but we should be aware that there's probably far more room for error.

As a person living with HIV, do you value the honesty of the person who openly states that they're also HIV+? I do personally but I'm not sure everyone feels the same. Your sixth sense may reject the openly positive person even though that's what you're looking for. You may feel that they've crossed an invisible line and you won't feel comfortable with someone who is so "public" about themselves. After all, ask yourself what would you think about the profile that proclaimed they had hepatitis C, or syphilis, or herpes, or chlamydia? In the best of all possible worlds, being open about those things should be possible, if not advisable but your gut reaction might not agree. All this is saying that although we are honing our sixth sense skills, they may not always be fair or justified. We may be rejecting someone online who we would have clicked with in real life. It's more complex than you think and it may be a long time before we can truly trust our online instincts.

It really depends what you're looking for either online or face to face. If you're after a hook up, you may not want to hear about his or her prize Dahlias and may respond to a cruder form of correspondence. Do you like a person to cut the crap and get to the point, or does that in fact put you off? Whatever we're looking for, we may not want to admit it but one wrong word or sentence can trigger the off switch. Whether that's prejudice or presentience is the question.

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