A well-known 19th century psychologist, William James, proposed that we don’t cry because we’re sad, but rather we’re sad because we cry. In other words, our minds only register emotion after our physical reaction occurs.
Earlier studies found that anxious people tend to be highly aware of their bodies, while those who tend toward depression are relatively out of touch with them.
A new study wanted to see if there was any truth to this "bodily feedback" theory by testing the idea that people who are good at picking up on bodily sensations like their own heartbeats would have a stronger connection between these physical sensations and their intuition and decision-making abilities than people who were less aware.
For the first part of the study, the researchers showed participants pictures that elicited various reactions (i.e., disgust, sadness, happiness, etc.), and the participants rated their reactions. They were asked to feel their own heart rates in response to the imaged presented; heart rates were also tracked with EKG to see how accurate the participants were.
In the second part of the study, the participants played a card game in which success was based on intuition rather than logic or reasoning. The researchers also measured the participants’ heart rates and skin conductance, which is another measure of physiological arousal. How did the participants do? Some people were able to listen to their instincts and did well at the game – in these people, there was a stronger association between bodily reactions and their intuition. In other people, their "gut" feelings seemed to be telling them to make the wrong choice, so they were never able to beat the game.
The research seems to support James’ theory that bodily reactions may moderate our emotional responses. But how does this help us in the big picture? TheDoctor asked study author Barney Dunn, PhD, a senior investigator scientist at University of Cambridge this very question. In his email response Dunn says that understanding how we process (bodily) information could help people suffering from anxiety and depression.
He explained that earlier studies found that anxious people tend to be highly aware of their bodies, while those who tend toward depression are relatively out of touch with them. New therapies might help people refocus their attention. "By helping anxious individuals to focus less on the body, this might reduce overwhelming negative emotions and reduce the impact overly negative emotional cues have on decision-making. However, these are speculative ideas at the moment and need further research to support them."
So how do people learn to refocus their attention and reduce these emotions? Dunn told TheDoctor that his lab is "currently investigating the effects of meditation training, where individuals systematically attend to sensations in the body. We are assessing whether this improves the ability to listen accurately to their bodies, and if this in turn changes how people make decisions and experience emotions."
Dr. Dunn is affiliated with the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, U.K. The study was published in the December 2010 issue of Psychological Science.