In recent studies over the last 5 years, it has become known that the heartbeat heavily affects our response to stimuli. The common belief that the heart and brain work without much connection to each other, is slowly fading, with this example being at the forefront of changing this misconception.
Firstly, the ability to recognise objects is affected by our heartbeat. At the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, at Lausanne, a team of neuroscientists did a study which showed that when flashing objects were presented to subjects, in sync with their heartbeat, the subjects found it harder to identify the object, and so took longer to do so. Although, at first this may not make much sense, there is a logical explanation for this phenomenon. When our hearts beat, many physiological things are occurring at the same time within our bodies. For example, when the heart beats, the eyes move and eye pressure changes. Chest expansion and contraction also occurs. This means that when heartbeats take place, activity in the insula, the part of the brain to do with self-awareness, is suppressed. This is why it is harder for people to recognise objects, especially flashing objects, if they are shown in synchronisation with heartbeats.
Although virtual reality has made great strides in the last 10 years, especially on gaming consoles like the Playstation 4 and Xbox One, it is fair to say that for most people, this method of experiencing stimuli, is not yet very realistic. For those of you who have played a virtual reality game, the character’s body does not feel like your own. However, research has shown that when a person is in a VR situation, it is possible to make the situation more realistic and make the user feel as though they are truly in sync with a character ‘skin’, when a stimulus is displayed, which flashes in synchronisation with the gamer’s heartbeat. This could be useful in the future for making prosthetic limbs more attractive for patients who have lost limbs. This may seem quite extraordinary, but the reasoning behind this research is that the heart is linked to our sense of self. Prosthetic limbs may also feel more like our own if our HEP (heartbeat-evoked potential) is high. The HEP is the extent to which we can feel our heart beating. The more we are aware of our heart beat, the higher HEP level. Esra Al, a researcher on this topic, found out that external feelings, like touch, are lowered when HEP is high, so our feeling of touch with prosthetics is lowered, making them feel more like our own limbs.2
Although fear is generally thought to be managed by the brain, a large part of fear is related to the heart and the cardiac sensations which involve it. For example, if frightening images are shown to a person in time with his/her heartbeat, the image will seem much scarier, as the brain makes the mistake of judging this synchronised stimulus as worthy of triggering the adrenaline response (i.e. fight-or-flight). The reason for this, is that the cardiac sensations from a heart beat, increases the processing of threats. This explains why people who can feel their heart beating, and are aware of it more often than others, tend to have more anxiety and panic disorders. The heart beats in two ways, during systole (when the heart is pumping blood around the body), and diastole (when the heart is refilling with blood). Fear peaks when a ‘scary’ image is displayed in sync with the heartbeat during diastole, rather than during systole.3
To conclude, this new-found research on the heart’s connection to our senses, has many uses in VR, prosthetics, identifying objects and understanding why humans become stressed. Undoubtedly, the future will reveal more on the heart’s link to our senses, with expert scientists like Esra Al leading the way.
- Featured Image- Love, S., 2020. Can You Feel Your Heartbeat? The Answer Says A Lot About You. [online] vice.com. Available at: <https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/akw3xb/connection-between-heartbeat-anxiety> [Accessed 15 May 2020].
- Kwon, D., 2016. How Your Heartbeat May Trick Your Senses. [online] scientificamerican.com. Available at: <https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-your-heartbeat-may-trick-your-senses/> [Accessed 15 May 2020].
- Kingsland, J. and Sherrell, Z., 2020. How The Heart Changes Our Sensory Perception. [online] Medicalnewstoday.com. Available at: <https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/how-the-heart-changes-our-sensory-perception> [Accessed 15 May 2020].