'Gut Instinct' May Stem From the Heart 01/06/11
THURSDAY, Jan. 6 (HealthDay News) -- Everyone feels gut
instincts at one time or another: Marry that guy! Don't take that
job. Stay inside during this snowstorm! Now, a new study suggests
there is indeed a link between your heartbeat and the decisions you
"These findings can help explain how we make key choices in life -- for example, which house to buy, which job to go for -- for better or for worse," explained study author Barnaby D. Dunn, a clinical psychologist who works with the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, England.
The findings don't indicate that your heart is very good at
giving you insight into what to do. And the research doesn't point
to any particular way to get better at decision making. Still, the
study does manage to find evidence that there's something to the
idea of trusting your heart.
"I work as a clinical psychologist, and I have been struck in my therapy practice how clients often describe their emotions and decisions in terms of what is happening in their bodies -- for example, feeling brokenhearted or following their gut instincts," Dunn said. "I wanted to see if there was a scientific basis to the idea that what happens in our bodies shapes our minds."
The researchers tried to find a link between heart and mind by
first testing participants to see if they could estimate how fast
their hearts were beating. "Participants are instructed to try to
'feel' their heart internally and not to directly measure their
pulse with their fingers," Dunn said. "Most people say they are
guessing at the tracking task and are unconfident in their
performance, and yet there are marked differences in how accurate
their estimates are. Only around one-fifth of people show high
levels of accuracy."
Researchers then tried to elicit emotions from the participants
by showing them photos of happy things (like a cute puppy) and
not-so-happy things (a disgusting plate of food). They then tried
to link people's responses to their ability to monitor their heart
"People's arousal turned out to be related to changes in their heart rate," Dunn said. "And this link was stronger in people who were more aware of their own heartbeat. So how people felt depended in part on how well they could sense the status of their own bodies."
"This suggests that what happens in our bodies really does shape how we feel emotionally," he said.
In a second experiment, the participants played a card game that
emphasized intuition instead of strategy. "The quality of the
advice that people's bodies gave them varied," Dunn said. "Some
people's gut feelings were spot on, meaning they mastered the card
game quickly. Other people's bodies told them exactly the wrong
moves to make, so they learned slowly or never found a way to win.
This link between gut feelings and intuitive decision making was
stronger in people who were more aware of their own heartbeat."
What's the connection between the heart and brain? Dunn said one
theory goes like this: "The 'emotional' parts of the brain generate
the bodily response in the first place. The 'rational' parts of the
brain then listen in to these bodily responses to find out what the
'emotional' parts of the brain are doing. This allows both logic
and emotion to shape our choices."
Dunn said better understanding of the link between the body and
the mind might eventually help people who struggle with depression
"We know that anxious people are hyper-aware of the body, whereas those who are depressed are out of touch with the body," he said. "Training the ability to tune in and out of the body may be beneficial for these individuals."
The study was published in the December issue of
The American Heart Association has information on
how the brain works.
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