Could an awareness of the heartbeat be a vital component of empathy?


Heart shape drawn in condensation on a window. Outside it is dark and we see out-of-focus lights in white, yellow, and red.

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 Neurologia 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.

, , , ,

3 Comments. Leave new

  • Dr. Sean Thompson
    August 25, 2013 6:59 pm

    I am a Buddhist Minister here in Colorado and teach a meditation class each week. This information is GREAT thank you so much for posting. We are going to use this article as a basis of a mindfulness meditation to enhance and develop compassion and empathy through body awareness. We would like to also invite you or any of the teachers to our space to guest teach and to talk about mindfulness and other subjects if interested. I have taught for many years and am loving the scientific backup of the use and development of kindness, mindfulness and compassion.

    • Thank you, Dr. Thompson.

      I’ve love to come and visit your community sometime. Please let me know if you’re interested in making that happen. Colorado was the first place I ever visited in the US, and it’s a state I love very much. I’ll have to see if I can organize a retreat there sometime :)

  • I’ve had a mechanical aortic valve for four years now, and am very aware of my heartbeat – at first the noise was obtrusive, though now I have got very used to it and it doesn’t often bring itself to my attention. I do use it as a meditation object, though, as it’s very easy to find and to focus on, and it is actually my own heartbeat. Paying attention to it arouses a sense of gratitude, for the skill of the surgeon who put it in, as well as for the cumulative expertise of the people who developed it. It is known as the ‘St Jude’ valve, presumably after the hospital where it was developed, and this seems a fitting name since St Jude is traditionally considered to be the patron saint of last causes. I think I probably owe my life to it, so St Jude is a friend to me! And now I have a whole new field of enquiry to pursue, presumably with the help of other people who know me. Certainly empathy is a quality I value, and I have benefited from my commitment to it when dealing with an ongoing family issue which has been complicated by disagreements between two of the parties. I am on good terms with both, and can see and appreciate both points of view, which has made it easier to make a positive contribution without stirring things up. Thanks for posting this.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.