Our bodies and minds interact through a constantly changing network of “body maps” in our brains. As described in Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee’s new book, The Body Has a Mind of Its Own, these maps create our ability to navigate our inner world and the social world of our interactions with other people, as well as the physical world. Understanding these maps can help answer puzzling questions such as why we still feel fat after losing weight, how we can improve at a sport without moving a muscle, why you can’t tickle yourself, and what causes an out-of-body experience. In Chapter 10, excerpted here, the authors discuss how the abilities to interpret sensations within our bodies and to be emotionally aware of other people are linked.
Excerpted from Chapter 10 of The Body Has a Mind of Its Own: How Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Everything Better by Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee. © 2007 by Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee. Published by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.
Do you consider yourself to be emotionally intelligent? Are you empathic, able to read other people’s feelings even when they try to hide or swallow them? Or do friends rib you about your social cluelessness? Do people see you as spiritually grounded, emotionally balanced, a rock? Or do they say you’re repressed, tactless, juvenile? If you weren’t in good touch with your own emotional inner world, how would you ever know?
Several years ago, nine women and eight men came to Dr. Hugo Critchley’s laboratory at the Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London to explore their level of emotional sensitivity. Critchley, an expert on brain mapping who is now at the University of Sussex, was interested in the relationship between emotional intelligence and a brain function called interoception—your ability to read and interpret sensations arising from within your own body.
Pretend you are a participant in such an experiment You lie down in a brain scanner, put on headphones, and place your left middle ﬁnger on a pad that monitors your heart rate. Your right hand rests on another pad with two buttons. As the The more viscerally aware, the more emotionally attuned you are. scanner monitors your brain activity, you listen through the headphone to several series of ten beeps. After each ten-beep sequence there is a pause and you are asked to make a choice: Press one button if you think the beeps were in time with your own heartbeats, or press the other button if you think the beeps were slightly out of sync with your heart. Critchley repeats these sequences, sometimes in sync, sometimes not. Can you tell the difference?
Four of Critchley’s subjects were supremely conﬁdent about when the pulse was synchronous or asynchronous with their hearts. They could feel the difference, accurately, every time. Two subjects were veritably heart-blind. They never had a clue about whether the pulses were in or out of sync, and could only guess at random. The others fell in between.
The brain scans revealed signiﬁcant activity in several brain regions, notably the insula and anterior cingulate cortex. Both these regions are crucial centers of emotional cognition, and as this study makes clear, they are also necessary for attending to feelings that arise from your body.
But the most signiﬁcant ﬁnding in Critchley’s study involved just one brain region, the right frontal insula. This area showed the greatest activity in those who were best at following their heartbeats. Moreover, these were the people who scored highest on a standardized questionnaire to probe their empathy levels. So the better you are at tracking your own heartbeats, Critchley says, the better you are at experiencing the full gamut of human emotions and feelings. The more viscerally aware, the more emotionally attuned you are.