Want to be more empathetic? Listen to your heart (beat), scientists say

Henry Bodkin

When it comes to reading the emotions of others, “listen to your heart” may sound a meaninglessly vague suggestion.

According to new research, however, the advice should be taken literally.

Scientists have discovered that people able to hear their own heart beat are more empathetic and better able to navigate social situations.

Experiments at Anglia Ruskin University have for the first time proven a link between a person’s own physiological awareness, and their psychological ability to “read the minds” of other people.

"If you do not feel your heart rate increase, it may reduce your ability to understand a situation

Punit Shah, Anglia Ruskin University

Volunteers were asked to count their heart beats without feeling a pulse and then shown video clips of social interactions.

During the clips they were asked what they believed the characters were feeling and thinking, as well as non-social questions, such as what the weather was like.

Those who had counted their heart beats most accurately were better at answering questions relating to the characters’ emotions, but there was no association between their “interoceptive ability” and correct answers to the non-social questions.

Writing in the journal Cortex, the scientists say their findings mean it could be possible to make people more empathetic by training them to listen to their heart.

Psychologist Punit Shah, who conducted the research, said: “ "An example of this could be if your colleague Michael is aggressive towards Sandra on public transport, your body processes this by increasing your heart rate, perhaps making you feel awkward and anxious, enabling you to understand that Sandra is embarrassed.

We are afraid because we run from the bear, not the other way round, according to William James Credit: AFP

"If you do not feel your heart rate increase, it may reduce your ability to understand that situation and respond appropriately.

"This seems straightforward yet there is almost no scientific evidence for the link between internal sensations and mind reading.

He said the discovery opened new avenues of psychological research centred on internal bodily sensations.

Ever since 1884, when  American philosopher William James posed the question “Do we run from the bear because we are afraid, or are we afraid because we run”, psychologists have fiercely debated the extent to which emotions are primarily physical or mental events.

The new research by Anglia Ruskin University adds weight to the argument that feelings are, at the very least, deeply rooted in physical sensations.

"This may have a beneficial impact on daily functioning, where an improved ability to interpret the internal states of oneself and of others could result in more accurate mind reading, and more generally improve someone's social interactions and overall quality of life,” said Mr Shah.

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