Posts Tagged ‘Geoff Bird’

Listening to Your Heartbeat Helps You Read Other People’s Minds

May 16, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Helen Thomson in the News & Technology section of the 6 May 2017 issue of the New Scientist.  She writes that “people who are more aware of their heartbeat are better at perceiving the emotions of others—a finding that might help some people with autism.”

According to the Theory of Constructive Emotions, to generate emotions we first need to interpret our body’s internal state—a process called interoception.  So we feel fear only once we recognize an increase in our heart rate or feel our palms get sweaty.

Researchers have suggested that interoception is important for understanding what other people are thinking and even guessing what they think a their person might be thinking.  The notion is that if we have trouble distinguishing our own emotions, we might also find it hard to interpret he emotions and mental states of others.

To investigate, Geoff Bird and his team asked 72 volunteers to sound their heartbeats using their fingers to take their pulse.  This is a measure of interoception.  The volunteers then watched videos of social interactions.  After viewing each video they were asked multiple choice questions testing their ability to infer the characters’ mental states.

When the volunteers were asked feelings about the emotions of the characters, the volunteers who were better at counting their own heartbeat performed better on such questions.  They were more empathetic (Cortex, dos.org/b6m2).  However, there was no link between interoceptive ability and accuracy on questions that didn’t involve any emotions.

Bird says that interoceptive difficulties probably play a role in some features of schizophrenia and autism.  There is some evidence that looking in a mirror can improve interception.  Bird says that it has not yet been shown whether interception training also improves empathy, but it’s an experiment that he’d like to try.