Listen to your heart – it may tell you something about memory

Follow your heart because a new study from Western University shows that your memories already do. Investigators at Western’s renowned Brain and Mind Institute have discovered that signals from inside your body can affect memories. The findings were recently published online by Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Chris Fiacconi, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow at the Brain and Mind Institute, explains, “When describing their emotions, people often make reference to feelings in their body. They say, ‘my heart was pounding’ or ‘my stomach was in knots.’ Our work suggests that these bodily sensations may also accompany the activation of memories in experiences that we traditionally describe as feelings.”

Historically speaking, more than 100 years ago, scientists noted that when people are confronted with a familiar face or a familiar situation, they describe feeling infused with a ‘warm glow.’ Until now, these feelings have been difficult to investigate with empirical research.

Collaborating with Brain and Mind principal investigator Stefan Köhler, Fiacconi focused on one of the most striking visceral signals in the human body, namely heartbeats.

To determine whether these signals influence feelings of familiarity, the researchers showed volunteers brief images (or snapshots) of different faces in such a way that they coincided with either the systolic (‘on’) or the diastolic phase (‘off’) of the heartbeat, as measured with an electrocardiogram.

Study participants were asked to judge whether these faces seemed familiar or unfamiliar. Remarkably, the researchers found that previously unknown faces were more likely judged as familiar when they were presented at the time when feedback about the contraction of the heart is known to reach the brain, than when they were presented in the ‘off’ phase of the cardiac cycle.

“These new findings suggest that signals from the body not only shape our emotional feelings, but also affect more broadly our memory experience, such as feelings of familiarity, and perhaps other aspects of memory that are linked to intuition,” says Köhler, a psychology professor at Western’s Faculty of Social Science.

This study raises important questions about how the human brain integrates visceral signals with other information that guides our memory judgments and could provide new insights into how deficits in this integration could contribute to memory disorders in neurological disease.

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