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How Your Heart Influences What You Perceive and Fear

https://www.quantamagazine.org/how-your-heart-influences-what-you-perceive-and-fear-20200706/

quantamagazine.org

How Your Heart Influences What You Perceive and Fear
The heartbeat and other bodily processes play a surprising role in shaping perception and cognition.

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Explaining our experiences

Explaining our experiences

The brain is the ruler of our movements and the keeper of our thoughts. The brain is also joined to the body, and connection goes both ways. For example, if receptors indicate hunger, we find food to eat.

Research shows that those sensations do more than alert the brain to the body's immediate concerns. Studies of the heart give insights into the role the body's most basic processes play in explaining our experiences.

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An effect of the systole phase

The activity of the heart can be divided into two phases: systole (when the heart muscle contracts and pumps out blood) and diastole (the heart relaxed and refills with blood.)

Systole decreases pain and control startle reflexes. Pressure sensors send signals of the heart's activity to inhibitory regions of the brain. Experiments show that people are more likely to forget the words they heard exactly at systole.

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The heart is like a seesaw

When you sense something from inside, it reduces the processing of external signals. When your heartbeat is going, it's loading up the seesaw on one side.

An experiment showed that when people were given a faint electrical stimulus to their finger, they were more likely to notice it during diastole and miss it during systole. When the heart pushes blood through your body during systole, it's possible to feel your pulse in your fingertips.

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The processing of fear

The systole doesn't inhibit the stimuli of fear. The systole not only activates inhibitory brain regions, but also the amygdala, an area that process the experience of fear. During systole, people can perceive fearful faces more intensely.

If you are in a state of fear, you don't want to be sensitive to pain. You want to run over broken glass to escape the threat. But you also want to be hyper-alert to danger in the environment.

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Systole in people with anxiety

  • Researchers found eye movements often occur at systole, while we fix our gaze more often during diastole. During systole, we're least sensitive to the world.
  • Another finding is that systole is more likely to enhance fear processing in people with anxiety. If you can change how threatening stimuli are, you may be able to get people out of anxiety states.

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During a dangerous situation, the brain becomes hyperalert, pupils dilate, the bronchi dilate, breathing accelerates, heart rate and blood pressure rise, blood flow and a stream of glucose to the skeletal muscles increase, and organs not vital in survival slow down, such as the gastrointestinal system.

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