It might seem counterintuitive, but it turns out that the people who listen intently to their own heartbeats can gain an ability to better understand the emotions of others, reports New Scientist.

A study performed by Geoff Bird at the University of Oxford asked 72 volunteers to count their own heartbeats without relying on using fingers to take a pulse. Subjects had to focus on the subtle vibration of their hearts on their breastbones only, which allowed them to meditate on their own internal states. Such an activity is believed to incite a process known as interoception.

Study participants were then asked to watch a series of videos depicting social interactions, and after each clip they were given multiple choice questions designed to gauge their ability to understand the characters' internal mental states. Sure enough, participants who were better at accurately counting their own heartbeats also did better with the questions.

“They were more empathetic,” claimed Bird.

The path to understanding another person's thoughts

Interoception is believed to be an important indicator of how well an individual can understand another person's thoughts. The idea is that if we can't take the time to understand our own internal emotions and machinations, we will never learn to apply these revelations to other people. In other words, interoception appears to be crucial to how we form a theory of mind.

In fact, it's thought that in order to generate emotions at all, we first need to learn to interpret our body’s internal state of affairs.

Bird's research seems to confirm this idea, but the results pertained mostly to emotions rather than internal thoughts. For instance, study participants with superior interoception skills only performed better on questions that focused on the emotional reactions of others. When asked to interpret logical or non-emotional theory of mind questions, interoceptors did not perform better or worse than the control.

“Studies like these show nicely that interoceptive abilities are engaged in different ways for different tasks,” said Anil Seth at the University of Sussex in Brighton. “But these relations are likely to be highly complex, so it would be interesting to look also at other dimensions of interoception, like breathing.”

The research could lead to new therapeutic ways to help relieve symptoms for those with autism or schizophrenia. It might even help those of us who desire to become better attuned to the emotions of our loved ones.

“It’s not yet been shown whether training your interoception also improves your empathy, but it’s an experiment we’d like to try,” added Bird.