Listening to your heartbeat helps you read other people’s minds
- You really should listen to your heart.
- People who are more aware of their heartbeat are better at perceiving the emotions of people around them.
- What’s more, improving this ability might help relieve some symptoms of autism and schizophrenia.
Can you feel your heart beating softly against your breastbone?
- Or perhaps you feel hungry, thirsty or in pain?
- If so, you are perceiving your internal state – a process called interoception.
- It’s thought that to generate emotions, we first need to interpret our body’s internal state of affairs.
- So if we see a rabid dog, we only feel fear once we recognise an increase in our heart rate or perceive a sweaty palm
People with conditions that involve having poor interoceptive abilities
- also have trouble interpreting their emotions.
- researchers have also speculated that interoception is important for understanding what other people are thinking
- and even guessing what they think a 3-rd person might be thinking – known as theory of mind
- The idea is that if we have trouble distinguishing our own emotions
- we might also find it hard to interpret the emotions – and corresponding mental states – of others.
- To investigate, Geoff Bird, now at the University of Oxford, and his team
--- asked 72 volunteers to count their heartbeats, but
--- without using their fingers to take their pulse – a measure of interoception.
--- The participants then watched videos of various social interactions.
--- After each clip, they were asked multiple-choice questions that tested their ability to infer the characters’ mental states.
--- For instance, one scene showed a man called Tom trying to flirt with a girl called Gemma,
--- who was clearly interested in a second, shyer man, Barry.
- Some questions required the participants to understand the emotions of a certain character
--- for instance, “Is Gemma feeling annoyed?”-
- Participants who were better at counting their own heartbeat performed better on such questions.
--- “They were more empathetic,” says Bird.
- But there was no link between interoceptive abilities and accuracy on theory of mind questions that didn’t involve any emotions
--- such as “What does Barry think Gemma thinks Tom’s intentions are?”
- This suggests that:
--- our ability to interpret signals from our own body
--- only helps us understand the thoughts of others
--- when emotion is a factor.
- Studies like these show nicely that interoceptive abilities are engaged in different ways for different tasks
--- “But these relations are likely to be highly complex,
--- so it would be interesting to look also at other dimensions of interoception, like breathing
- interoceptive difficulties probably play a role in a range of symptoms:
--- with conditions such as autism and schizophrenia.
--- e.g., some people with autism find loud noises and bright lights upsetting
--- These things are linked to interoception, making our hearts beat faster and raising our level of arousal.
--- It’s purely theoretical for now, but
- if a person good at distinguishing the internal signals from others
--- (aroused from loud noises and bright lights) that are related to pain,
--- then maybe those [innocuous] signals could be interpreted as painful
- It’s not yet been shown whether training your interoception also improves your empathy
--- but it’s an experiment we’d like to try
--- One way to do this is to get people to listen to a tone
--- that beats in time with their heart and gets quieter over time
--- There’s also some evidence that looking in a mirror can improve interoception.
- We don’t know yet what effect such training might have
--- on our ability to discriminate between our own emotions and those of other people
--- Could training better interoceptive awareness make it more difficult for people
--- to disentangle their own feelings from those of others?