How strongly and accurately you feel your heart beating could tell you something about your mental health.
By Shayla Love
Take a moment to pay attention to your body, and all of the sensations within it. Zero in on your heartbeat and try to notice each beat. How strongly can you feel each thump-thump? Do you think you’re catching each beat, or are some escaping your perception?
This ability, to feel your heartbeat, along with any other internal sensations in your body, is called interoception. It’s the opposite of exteroception—which are signals we receive and process from the outside world, like sight, sound, or touch.
Interoception helps us to regulate our bodies—interoceptive cues tell us when we’re hungry, thirsty, or when we have to pee, so we can do something about it. Yet it’s more than just the body’s superintendent. Our internal sensations also interact with our emotions, thoughts, and feelings in meaningful and surprising ways.
Scientists who study the way we sense our bodies are finding that the heartbeat, particularly, can be a direct line to the brain, and the mental states that reside there. Your heartbeat can influence how you feel and how intensely you feel it. It can distract you from remembering things, or make you latch onto them more strongly. And the way each individual feels their own heart beat—how accurate they are, and how accurate they think they are—could predict if they have anxiety, or other various mental health disorders. Even more intriguing, helping people learn to more precisely feel their hearts could soon be a form of treatment for those same disorders.
Throughout the day, our hearts are beating, and we may not be aware of it most of the time. (Maybe you are currently aware, because you’ve been asked to pay attention.) Every time your heart beats, it sends a signal to your brain, said Sarah Garfinkel, a neuroscientist at the University of Sussex, a leading expert in the heart and its relationship to emotions.
It can seem as though the opposite is true: that it’s our emotional states that are in charge, and directing our heart’s behavior. When we’re scared, it makes our hearts beat faster. But it’s actually a two-way street: Our feelings are influenced by signals that come from our bodies too.
This discussion of the connection between body and emotions goes back to William James, often called the father of American psychology. In the late 19th century, he proposed that emotions were simply the names we gave to sensations in our bodies. When our heart is pounding, for example, that physical sensation gives rise to what we know of as “fear.” We don’t get scared and cause our hearts to beat. Our hearts beat, and make us scared.
This makes some intuitive sense. It’s hard to imagine being furious without the physical accoutrements that come with it: a flushed face, a racing heart, clenched teeth, flared nostrils. Or, to feel grief without tears, breathlessness, a pang in the heart. “A purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity,” as James put it.
Today, researchers know from brain imaging that the area of the brain that processes internal sensations, the anterior insula, is also crucial in processing emotions—supporting James’ idea that emotions and body are intertwined. Northeastern University neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett has similarly found in her work that emotions are shaped and defined by bodily sensations, past experiences, and emotional concepts from our parents and cultural upbringing. Our emotions are not so much reactions to the world, but inventions of our brains to explain the cause of our sensations.
Fear can be increased by your heartbeat. In 2014, Garfinkel showed study subjects pictures of faces with fearful, happy, disgusted, or neutral expressions. The people who saw the fearful faces at the same time that they were made aware of their hearts beating said they found them to be more intense.
Interestingly, we all don’t have the same abilities when it comes to feeling ourselves. Scientists who study interoception often use heartbeat detection tasks to investigate this variability. They have found differences in how accurate people are at feeling their heartbeats, how good they think they are, and whether or not their beliefs about their interoceptive abilities match their actual accuracy…