Researchers have studied whether volunteers can be trained to follow their heartbeat and also whether it is possible to identify from brain activity how good they were at estimating their performance.
University of Cambridge's Tristan Bekinschtein said that "follow your heart" has become something of a cliché, but consciously or unconsciously, there is a relationship between the heart rate and the decisions and emotions. There may well be benefits to becoming more attuned to the heartbeat, but there's very little in scientific literature about whether this is even technically possible.
In a study, researchers showed that people with "depersonalization-derealization disorder," in which patients repeatedly feel that they are observing themselves from outside their body or have a sense that things around them are not real, perform particularly badly at listening to their heart, but another study from the team, looking at a man with two hearts, his natural, diseased heart and a replacement artificial heart, found that he was better able to tune into the artificial heart than the diseased one.
Thirty-three volunteers took part in an experiment during which scientists measured their brain activity using an electroencephalograph (EEG). First off, the volunteers were asked to tap in synchrony as they listened to a regular and then irregular heartbeat. Next, they were asked to tap out their own heartbeat in synchrony. Then, they were asked to tap out their own heartbeat whilst listening to it through a stethoscope. Finally, the stethoscopes were removed and they were once again asked to tap out their heartbeat.
MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit's Andres Canales-Johnson said that they found that brain activity differed between people who improved at tapping out their heartbeat and those who did not, but brain activity also differed between people who knew whether or not they had improved and those people who under- or over-estimated their own performance.
Just over four in ten of the participants showed significant improvement in their ability to accurately tap along unaided with their heartbeat. This is most likely due to the fact that listening to their heartbeat through a stethoscope had allowed them to fine tune their attention to the otherwise faint signal of their heartbeat. In those whose performance had improved, the researchers saw a stronger brain signal known as the 'heartbeat evoked potential' (HEP) across the brain.
Bekinschtein added that they've shown that for just under half of people, training can help them listen to their hearts, but they may not be aware of their progress. Some people find this task easier to do than others do and some people clearly don't know how well or bad they actually are but their brain activity gives them away.
The study is published in the journal Cerebral Cortex