Monday, 11 June 2012

Body-sensitive people are tuned into their heart and their stomach

We know from past research that some people are better than others at being able to detect their own heartbeat. There's lots of research on that topic, partly because it's so easy to compare people's estimates of their heartbeats against the true reading. But is this a characteristic that generalises? Are people who are accurate at detecting their cardiac activity also in-tune with their other internal bodily functions?

Before now, just one study from the early 80s had looked for and found an association between cardiac awareness and gastric awareness. But that study relied on an uncomfortable sounding procedure in which participants had to swallow a balloon. That necessarily ruled out a lot of potential participants who wouldn't have wanted to do such a thing, and the internal gastric sensations that the remaining participants detected were artificially induced.

Now Beate Herbert and her colleagues have used a more natural test of gastric awareness. Forty-nine healthy women fasted for four hours before arriving at the lab where they were instructed to drink water until they felt full. The container they drank from was opaque and re-filled after each swig, so that there was no way for the women to judge visually how much they'd drunk. The participants also completed a test of their heartbeat awareness. For both tasks, medical equipment in the form of electrocardiogram (ECG) and electrogastrogram (EGG) provided objective measures of heart and stomach activity.

The key finding is that women who were more accurate in detecting their own heartbeats also tended to stop drinking earlier, as if they were more sensitive to internal feelings of fullness. The EGG provided objective confirmation that they experienced less gastric activity than the other participants before stopping drinking, so it wasn't the case that their stomachs were actually more full or issuing more powerful signals. Rather the heartbeat sensitive women seemed to be particularly sensitive to signals arising from their stomachs. There were no links between either cardio or gastric awareness and anxiety.

Herbert and her team concluded: "'Interoceptive awareness' as assessed by heartbeat perception seems to represent a better ability to focus, to perceive and to process internal bodily information across visceral modalities, such as gastric signals, with cardiac and gastric signals both representing bodily cues that show perceivable activity changes during situations of everyday life."

Herbert, B., Muth, E., Pollatos, O., and Herbert, C. (2012). Interoception across Modalities: On the Relationship between Cardiac Awareness and the Sensitivity for Gastric Functions. PLoS ONE, 7 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0036646

Previously on the DigestPeople who are more aware of their own heart-beat have superior time perception skills.

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.


Jason@Megadyne said...
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Unknown said...

Raises many possibilities for further research. Are those with internal awareness more apt to correlate fluctuations in heart rate with more or less perceived stress? Can they better detect foods they do not tolerate and are allergic to since allergies increase the heart rate? Do they make more automatic adjustments for things like breath holding when under stress or does the awareness feed into the stress level? Based on these findings one would tend to predict positive outcomes in many areas. Of course the question then becomes "How does one best develop "internal awareness"?

Martin Linder said...

Could interoceptive awareness be connected to social awareness? In that the internally aware women were also more concerned with how much water is appropriate to drink in a social context?

Constantine said...

I agree with all of the above. I believe the major implications of this study is to target Obesity; testing those who are clinically obese, overweight, average BMI, and healthy lifestyle individuals for their internal capacity of inhibition (to say, unhealthy snacks), potentially mediated by their interoceptive awareness. One could also test pain thresholds of these individuals in a psychphysical way.
Thanks all and Christian!

Rolf Wistbacka said...

Perhaps one possible way for developing internal awareness is represented by a rare inner ear medical condition called "Superior canal dehiscence syndrome" (SCDS,)or by a more common malady called patulous Eustachian tube syndrome. Both induces an ability to hear the sounds created inside the body. Such abnormalities could function as sensational loopholes that triggers this kind of sensitivity

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