Aug 16, 2013
Could an awareness of the heartbeat be a vital component of empathy?
An awareness of the heart (the physical organ, not the metaphorical seat of emotion) and its role in empathy. Noticing the heart concerns a process called interoceptive awareness (IA), which is just a fancy term for how we monitor the body’s internal state. There’s evidence that interoceptive awareness is important for social cognition, including empathy.
Neuroscientists think we detect our own heart-beats via two routes. One is “somatosensory” — that is, we feel the movement of the heart’s beat through our sense of touch. The other route is via the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain down to the heart and beyond, and which carries electrical impulses in both directions.
The British Psychological Society reports that researchers Blas Couto and Agustin Ibanez and their colleagues, at the University of Cambridge and INECO (Instituto de Neurología Cognitiva, in Argentina), studied a man who is awaiting a heart transplant and who has a kind of “artificial heart” to support the function of his failing left ventricle. This assistive device beats out of sync with he man’s natural heart, and when asked to tap in time with his heartbeat the man would tap in time with the device, not with his own heartbeat.
An EEG showed that brain activity associated with interoceptive awareness was reduced in the man’s brain compared with control subjects. He seemed to have lost touch with his own heart, presumably because the sensory input from the artificial heart was much stronger in comparison.
The interesting thing, though, is that this subject’s empathy was impaired in comparison with control subjects. He also had greater difficulty understanding other people’s mental states) and with decision-making. These impairments are consistent with past research showing how interoceptive awareness is important for social and emotional cognition.
Now of course a sample of one patient is not necessarily representative, but it would be an interesting practice to pay more attention to your heartbeat — both during meditation and in other activities — and to see whether this brings about any changes in your level of empathy. There’s lots of scope for subjectivity here — how exactly do we measure our own empathy — but subjective evaluations are an inherent part of meditation experience.
I’d suggest just noticing the beating of the heart, and seeing what, if anything, happens.