Part 17 of Joy and Tranquillity digital guide

Sarah Garfinkel talks about optimism and the heart

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The shaping of emotional experience through internal changes in the body has long been recognised. In 1894, the American philosopher William James argued that the mental aspects of emotion, the “feeling states”, are a product of physiology – or the body’s internal signals.

Our heart does not pound because we are afraid; fear arises from our pounding heart.

Similarly, feelings of optimism and happiness have also been connected to changes in the body. Both heart-rate deceleration and heart-rate acceleration are observed in happiness and joy. High heart rate variability or HRV, which is the variation in the time interval between heartbeats, is associated with resilience and the potential to be both optimistic and stoical at times of adversity.

How the body is today can also predict emotions tomorrow; higher rates of HRV can predict optimism levels in the future.

Experiments also show that how we perceive internal bodily sensations influences how we experience emotions. As emotional feelings are thought to arise, in part, through the sensing of internal bodily changes, those individuals who are better able to sense bodily sensations, a process known as interoception, tend to experience emotions with greater intensity.

Every time our heart beats, it sends a signal to our brain, so our brains are in constant and dynamic communication with our internal bodily organs. In addition to this “neural sensing” of our hearts, we can also sense them consciously – where we may suddenly become aware of their pounding, or of a skipped beat.

And these changes in how our heart beats – and our neural and conscious perception of these – can help shape our emotional feeling states. That acceleration of our heart to pure joy can contribute to feelings of happiness.

So, next time you feel a strong emotion, take a moment to sense associated bodily changes. Could these be contributing to how you are feeling?

About the speaker

Black and white, head and shoulder photograph of a woman with long dark hair. She is wearing a dark top and jacket. In the background are shelves and a desk with a computer.

Sarah Garfinkel

Sarah Garfinkel is Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London. Her work centres on body-brain interaction underlying emotion and cognition, particularly in conditions such as anxiety, autism, PTSD and psychosis. Her research with autistic adults has led to the development of a new therapy technique using interoceptive training to reduce anxiety. Sarah was selected as one of 11 researchers on the Nature Index 2018 Rising Stars. She has published over 70 papers and articles in a range of scientific journals and has featured in several radio and TV shows.