Listening to your heart may help you read minds

Published: 2 May 2017 at 09:09

A set of headphones on a cartoon heart

Research shows ability to perceive bodily sensations helps with understanding others

Untitled PageNew research, published today in the journal Cortex, shows for the first time the link between being able to perceive one’s heartbeat and being able to tell the emotional mental state of another person.

Mind reading, or the “Theory of Mind”, is how we understand the thoughts and feelings belonging to oneself and others, enabling us to predict and manipulate each other’s behaviour.  

It is well known that people vary in their mind reading ability.  Some people are more easily able to understand the mental state of others whereas people with Autism, for example, have difficulties in this area which means they sometimes experience problems with social interactions.  

The new research was led by Punit Shah, of Anglia Ruskin University, and involved participants counting their heartbeats without taking their pulse in order to measure how well they perceived their internal bodily sensations.

Participants were shown video clips of social interactions which tested their ability to read the mind of the characters.  During the clips they were asked questions that required reading another person’s emotion, for example “What is Sandra feeling?”, questions that did not require the representation of emotional states, for example “What is Michael thinking?”, and non-social control questions such as “What was the weather like on that evening?”.

It was found that the ability to perceive internal sensations, known as interoceptive ability, was associated with mind reading.  However, although there was a statistical link between interoception and emotional mind reading, there was no link between interoception and questions that did not involve emotional mental states.  This suggests that an accurate perception of internal sensations helps mind reading in emotional situations.  

Shah, a Lecturer in Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University, explained: 


“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.  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.  Our study shows the psychological processes involved in mind reading, while also highlighting that internal sensations may be linked to a range of psychological abilities and difficulties. 

“Our study also suggests that it could be possible to train people to improve their heartbeat perception, and this might help with managing emotional and mindreading difficulties.  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.”