Our brains are so tuned to narratives that we can recall well-told stories better than basic facts, having evolved with storytelling as a means of passing information down through generations.
Stories have a powerful influence on the world we've built for ourselves, and it turns out that they may even be able to control the rhythm of our own heartbeats. A preliminary study of what happens in our bodies as we listen to these stories discovered that our hearts begin to beat in unison – even if we're miles apart.
According to Lucas C. Parra on his Twitter Account "Your heart rate fluctuates, naturally, even when you are just sitting there, doing nothing, maybe listening to a story on the radio. Guess what, you are not alone! Some one else listening to the same story will have the same heart rate fluctuations"
"Why does your heart rate go up and down like that?" Lucas Parra, the co-author of the paper and a biomedical engineer, asks the question on Twitter.
"We think it is because you need to be ready to act, at a moment's notice. And for that, you need to know what is going on around you. In other words, you need to be conscious of what is happening. Even if it is just a story."
Pauline Pèrez, a neuroscientist at the Paris Brain Institute, and her colleagues used an ECG to track the heart rates of volunteers during a series of tests. Heart rates were shown to synchronize across study participants, regardless of where they were, while they listened to a 1-minute sample of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in one trial and a few minutes of instructional films in another.
The instructional video demonstrated that this phenomenon was not linked to emotion, as earlier studies had hypothesized based on observations of synchrony in persons watching the same movie. However, disturbing the volunteers' focus — for example, by having them count backward or listening to distracting sounds – reduced their heart synchrony and their ability to recall the story.
Memory retention has been demonstrated to correlate with conscious perception, implying that our hearts beat in time with our minds' conscious narrative processing, according to the researchers."What's important is that the listener is paying attention to the actions in the story," says Paris Brain Institute neuroscientist Jacobo Sitt. "It's not about emotions, but about being engaged and attentive, and thinking about what will happen next. Your heart responds to those signals from the brain."
The researchers even tested this on 19 unconscious patients and 24 healthy participants in a final trial. Except for two individuals, the majority of the patients were unable to synchronize their heart rates, as expected. One of them was able to regain full awareness after that. "These results suggest that the patients' [synchronized heartbeats] might carry prognostic information with a specific emphasis on conscious verbal processing," the team writes in their paper.
Aside from alterations caused by physical exertion and other stressors, our hearts' rhythms naturally fluctuate all the time. This has previously been attributed to autonomic processes — the automatic, unconscious mechanisms that regulate our bodies – but this study reveals that conscious processes also play a role.
"There's a lot of literature demonstrating that people synchronize their physiology with each other. But the premise is that somehow you're interacting and physically present in the same place," says Parra.
"What we have found is that the phenomenon is much broader, and that simply following a story and processing stimulus will cause similar fluctuations in people's heart rates. It's the cognitive function that drives your heart rate up or down." Individual words (as well as the general meaning of the tale and the emotions they evoke) are thought to drive the synchronization, according to Pèrez and his colleagues, who also point out that a cohesive narrative is required to produce the synchronized activity found in the brain scans.
They do warn, however, that because this is a tiny study with only 20-30 volunteers in each experiment, the findings will need to be confirmed with bigger groups of people. Comparisons to brain scans may be useful in determining whether tales are also the cause of heartbeat synchronization.
"Neuroscience is opening up in terms of thinking of the brain as part of an actual anatomical, physical body," says Parra. "This research is a step in the direction of looking at the brain-body connection more broadly, in terms of how the brain affects the body."
"People think they react to the world in their particular way,'' adds biomedical engineer Jens Madsen from the City College of New York. "[But] even our hearts react in a very similar way when we listen to short stories. That makes me smile. We're all human."
About the Writers:
Maina Zaina, Writer and a Virtual Assistant at AVCreativity Studio. She enjoys media entertainment and is an avid fan of "K-Wave". She loves her job because she is exposed to different types of entertainment. She also believes in the saying "If you want to be successful, don't seek success - seek competence, empowerment; do nothing short of the best that you can do" by Jaggi Vasudev
Pamela Elizabeth, Editor-in-Chief at AVCreativity Studio. Earned a Bachelor’s Degree of Secondary Education Major in English. She loves going on little adventures alongside reading good books. She is enthusiastic about her work and ensures that her clients receive the finest service possible.