The Brain-Heart Connection: Emotions, Feelings and Health

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This article was originally published May 20, 2015

The heart is essential to our life, pumping oxygenated blood throughout our body. But it’s also the place where we experience many of our feelings — from a quickening beat when we see our loved one step off an airplane after a long separation, to a painful pause that happens when we hear bad news.

People have known for a long time about this intimate connection between the physical sensations of our body and the emotions that arise in response to the world. In fact, this link is a favorite subject of many poets, as in this line from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself: “Wherever the human heart beats with terrible throes under its ribs.”

Recent research has started to show that this connection is very real. Being perceptive to the physical sensations within our heart — and possibly other parts of the body — is linked to our emotional capabilities. Some researchers even suggest that people may one day be able to shift their emotional state by learning how to tune into the beating of their own heart.

The ability to monitor the physiological condition of your own body is called interoception. While most of us are aware of our heartbeat, bladder pressure and hunger to some degree, there’s wide variability in how sensitive we are.

But people who have a natural capacity to monitor the internal state of their own body have been shown “to be more intuitive, experience stronger emotional arousal, have better memory for emotional material, and perhaps be better able to control their negative emotions,” Vivien Ainley, a neuropsychologist at the University of London, told Psychology Today.

This connection between the physical sensations in our body and our emotions extends to the neural processes in our brain.

In a 2012 study in NeuroImage, researchers asked people to monitor their heartbeat and then watch videos of people sharing emotional stories. Both activities resulted in similar patterns of activation in the insular cortex — the location in the brain that is involved in interoception and emotions.

Another study, published in Human Brain Mapping in 2013, produced similar results. In the paper, the authors wrote: “These results suggest that attending to the bodily state underlies awareness of one’s emotional state.”

Given that people who are adept at monitoring the state of their own body tend to be more emotionally intuitive, it’s tempting to think that training the mind to be more internally aware would lead to heightened emotional abilities.

This line of thought is especially tempting because when people displayed worse interoceptive awareness, “the less intense were their experiences of positive emotion in daily life, and the more likely they were to have difficulty with everyday decision making,” Daniella Furman, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Stanford University, told Psychology Today.

Many techniques — including meditation — aim to put us in touch with our own body, as well as our own mind, by providing feedback and training. It may be too early to say, however, how much of our emotional state we can alter simply by listening more closely to our heart.

The deliciousness of milk and honey is the reflection of the pure heart:
from that heart the sweetness of every sweet thing is derived.
The heart is the substance, and the world the accident:
how should the heart’s shadow be the object of the heart’s desire?
Is that pure heart the heart that is enamored of riches or power,
or is submissive to this black earth and water of the body,
or to vain fancies it worships in the darkness for the sake of fame?
The heart is nothing but the Sea of Light:
is the heart the place of vision of God–and then blind?

~ Mevlâna Jalâluddîn Rumi


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