Using heartbeats to read minds

09 May 2017

Interview with

Punit Shah, Anglia Ruskin University and King's College London

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Can you read minds? Well, maybe not to Derren Brown’s standards, but actually - most of us do this every day. We can usually gauge how other people are feeling - whether they’re sad or happy - this is known as empathy. Some people are better at doing this than others, and research out this week suggests that it may be linked to how well you can monitor your own heartbeat. Punit Shah, lecturer and researcher at Anglia Ruskin University and King’s College London, got people to estimate their own heart rate - a measure of something called intraception, and to perform a task involving working out the emotions of other people - a measure of empathy. Georgia Mills went to see Punit to find out what he and his team discovered...

Punit - We found, after performing both sets of tasks, that there was quite a close link between people’s performance on the heart rate task and the task involving watching social situations.

Georgia - Why on earth would this be the case?

Punit - It was almost guaranteed to be the case when you think about the way in which we deal with emotion. When we see someone that we dislike, we might feel our heart rate elevate slightly. When we see a dangerous situation, we might feel our heart rate increase. And it’s in those situations where we need to be able to perceive our heart rate and respond appropriately and this seems very closely linked to emotion. It’s something that’s been known for almost a hundred years but the evidence for this link has actually been remarkably sparse.

Georgia - Thinking of an example, a time I would feel an emotion of someone else - you’re watching someone do a live talk and they forget their lines and you go ‘owh.’ Would this be a case of your own heartbeat increasing as a result of their sort of struggle and you hear, or feel, this and as a result feel like you’re feeling the emotion too?

Punit - Yeah, that’s a very good example where what you described really is empathy happening, where you sort of feel their pain almost. This process whereby you're feeling your internal sensations, feeling your stomach sort of clench up, where your heart rate increases - feeling all of those things helps you to understand that situation.

Now although the way you’ve described it seems incredibly intuitive and many people think everyone is able to do this, but what we’re finding is there are quite striking individual differences. Some people are really able to do this well. Equally however, there are others who really struggle at perceiving their own heartbeat and, therefore, struggle to understand others.

Georgia - OK. I’m quite keen to see where I’d fit on this. Is it alright if I try the dialled down version of the experiment?

Punit - Yeah, I think we can give that a try - yeah, absolutely.

Georgia - So what should we do?

Punit - First of all I’d like you to just sit on your chair upright and just try to relax, even though you’re holding a mic. But just try to have your arms as relaxed as possible on the armrest. Now what I’m going to do is try and find your pulse. I’m going to say ready, steady go. And as soon as I say go, I’d like you to close your eyes and try and count your heartbeats…

Georgia - OK then.

Punit - Close your eyes… go. Stop. OK, what did you think?

Georgia - 15?

Punit - 15? It was actually 28.

Georgia - Oh, no. What does that mean?

Punit - It doesn’t mean anything specifically. It doesn’t mean that your abnormal in any way - there’s a natural variation in it. I can’t do the full calculation now but it suggests that you aren’t perhaps as good at intraception as some other individuals.

Georgia - So, if I was on your chart, you’d expect me to have low empathy?

Punit - It’s possible that you may have slightly lower levels of empathy or theory of mind but, it’s like most people, that you sit somewhere in the middle. You sit somewhere around average where you make a reasonable number of mistakes and it’s likely you have quite an average score on the theory of mind or the social situations task.

Georgia - With your link here, how certain are you that once causes the other? Could it not be that there’s a third factor - say intelligence? Are intelligent people just good at measuring their own heartbeat and good at telling what other people think?

Punit - Within my research, I use what we call a “time estimation control task.” So, when I said “ready, steady go” there, you counted your heartbeat. In the control task people actually count the number of seconds. By doing so we expect that to also be related to IQ or intelligence, if there is any relationship. We don’t necessarily find this, nor do we find this relationship we found between internal sensations and emotion to actually break down after factoring in people’s performance on the time estimation task.

Georgia - Apart from telling people like me I need to go and be more empathetic, what implications does this have in the real world?

Punit - I think clinical implications, if there are any, may be some of the most important that we have seen. We know, for example, that people with autism spectrum disorder struggle with understanding social situations and may also have difficulty with processing their internal signals. So it may help us better understand, and even manage, their condition. The same applies to a whole host of other clinical and psychiatric conditions so by understanding this whole process, it may help us to understand and manage those conditions.

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