Listening to Your Pulse

An interesting new study looks at how being able to count your own heartbeats - the most elemental form of biofeedback - correlates with better decision-making, at least when playing the Iowa Gambling Task. Here's Kevin Lewis in the Boston Globe Ideas section:

A team of psychologists in Germany asked people to count their own heartbeats (without taking a pulse) and then asked them to play a computer gambling game, which required choosing repeatedly among four card decks that yielded different returns. People who were more accurate at counting their own heartbeats picked more cards from the decks with better returns. It seems that people who are in touch with feedback from their own body have an easier time learning from positive and negative experiences.

Why would being able to count your heartbeats lead to better performance at a card game? The answer tells us something interesting about the "body loop," and the importance of eavesdropping on those subtle emotions reverberating through our flesh. As William James hypothesized back in 1882, every emotion begins as a series of physiological changes in the body; our metaphysical feelings have a very carnal source. "What kind of an emotion of fear," James wondered, "would be left [after seeing a bear in the woods] if the feeling of quickened heart beats nor of shallow breathing, neither of trembling lips nor of weakened limbs, neither of goose bumps nor of visceral stirrings, were present?" James' answer was simple: without the body there would be no fear. We need the body in order to feel.

Consider the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT), a very clever experimental task pioneered by Antonio Damasio and Antoine Bechara. The task goes like this: a subject--"the player"--is given four decks of cards, two black and two red, and $2,000 of play money. Every card tells the player that they either won money or lost money. The subject is instructed to turn over a card from one of the four decks, and to make as much money as possible.

But the cards aren't distributed at random. The scientists rig the game. Two of the decks are full of high-risk cards. These decks have bigger payouts ($100), but also contain extravagant punishments ($1250). The other two decks, by comparison, are staid and conservative. Although they have smaller payouts ($50), they rarely punish the player. If the gamblers only draw from these two decks, they would come out way ahead.

At first, the card selection process is entirely random. The players have no reason to favor any specific deck, and so they sample from each pile, searching for money-making patterns. On average, people have to turn over about 50 cards before they began to only draw from the profitable decks. It takes about 80 cards before the average experimental subject can explain why they favored those decks. Logic is slow.

But Damasio wasn't interested in logic. He was interested in the body. He attached electrodes to the palms of the subjects and measured the electrical conductance of their skin. In general, higher levels of conductance in the skin signal nervousness and anxiety. (That's why our hands get clammy before a big test.) What Damasio found was that after drawing only 10 cards the hands of the experimental subjects got "nervous" whenever they reached for the negative decks. While the brain had yet to completely understand the game (and wouldn't for another 40 cards), the subject's hands "knew" what deck to draw from. Furthermore, as their hands grew increasingly sweaty, they started drawing more and more frequently from the advantageous decks. The unconscious feelings ricocheting throughout their body preceded their conscious decision. (For more on the body loop, check out Descartes' Error.) The hand led the mind.

This latest study expands on the importance of the body loop. The hand, of course, isn't the only part of the body that's getting nervous - our pulse is also rising, adrenaline is leaking into the bloodstream, etc. Thus, it makes sense that subjects who are more sensitive to all these fleshy emotions would also be better at picking the right cards. They know when they're nervous, and that allows them to take their nervousness into account. The body, in this sense, is a window into the unconscious - it knows more than we know.

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Great post. This kind of information can really give one in edge in trading and gambling. Does anyone suggest any books or further reading that delves into topics similar to the above?


Your comment that "the body is a window into the unconscious" is reminiscent of the work of Eugene Gendlin on what he calls "felt senses" -- conceptually vague understandings that are felt in the body and that can be brought into understanding through a certain kind of attention. Gendlin in fact once said, "The unconscious is the body". He was a co-researcher with Carl Rogers and in 1970 won the first Distinguished Professional Psychology Award of the Psychotherapy Division of the APA. Are you aware of his work?

By Ronan Culhane (not verified) on 05 Oct 2009 #permalink

Jonah: Is there a correlation between anxiety and pulse? Thanks.

By OftenWrongTed (not verified) on 05 Oct 2009 #permalink

the article said no fear if no body.

i don't go for that conclusion.

the body just reflects the fear, it's not the fear itself.

I'm told that one of the older traditions of meditation, Vipassana (supposedly the one employed by Buddha to reach enlightenment beneath the bodhi tree), has as one of its core elements the observation of sensations in the body. Apparently (based on my very limited understanding), in this tradition, while sitting in meditation, one strives to observe one's thoughts as they come and go while simultaneously noting the corresponding physical sensations, and thus inducing a deep calm objectivity--or so they say.

By William Forward (not verified) on 05 Oct 2009 #permalink

Given this insight, I wonder what other ways technology could be used to help amplify our awareness of our internal state. It seems the more in tune we are with our physiology the less it can interfere with objectivity in making decisions.

"People who were more accurate at counting their own heartbeats picked more cards from the decks with better returns."

Correlation does not imply causation, anyone?

I own a very sophisticated biofeedback device that works with the pulse. In the computer version one's pulse (picked up by an earclip)is displayed and varies randomly. If one tunes into the breath and puts one's attention on the heart (as if breathing from it) plus generates some positive appreciation of life, one notices that one's pulse changes and varies sinusoidally. The Heart Math Institute calls this cardiac coherence. There are various healthy repercussions that happen if one trains regularly in this way. Regular use of the device over the last few months has enhanced my meditation practice and overall state of mind.
William Forward: see Wikipedia for the Satipattana Sutta in which the Buddha gives instruction in mindfulness, one aspect of Vipassana Meditation.

I agree with Mike, correlation does not imply causation. One possible explanation for the results is that those who focused and put more effort into the experiment counted their heart beats with greater accuracy while also putting more thought into choosing which deck of cards to draw cards from.

The only thing the study does show is that we become nervous when greater risk is involved. If the deck with the very large penalties also had very large payouts, I imagine the body would react similarly even when it may be the better deck to choose on average. What irks me the most is how this post seems to suggest that our bodies make decisions better than our brains do(or more precisely, that our unconsciousness makes decisions better than our consciousness). This is utterly false, especially when it comes to statistics. There are far more studies that show the human brain (read: the unconscious part) fails statistics. The lottery and the millions who waste money playing it are good evidence for this. Using your conscious brain, however, you can avoid buying lottery tickets and even find optimal solutions for any similar deck problem (guaranteed to produce better results than listening to your pulse!). Far more frequently than they should, people give credit to instinct and unconscious thinking, while conscious thinking, on the other hand, is responsible for nearly all scientific knowledge -- many (especially older folks) owe their lives to it.

I would say this post is not only wrong in its central conclusion, but harmful. It propagates a common pseudo-scientific myth using a flawed study as evidence. It diverts precious human resources from productive science to ineffective, unhelpful, and worthless ideas. Listening to your pulse will never help you make decisions in any way.

While I realize the author may have had only good intentions, he and any others who believed it need to go back and re-learn the basics of science. Good day.

he unconscious is the body". He was a co-researcher with Carl Rogers and in 1970 won the first Distinguished Professional Psychology Award of the Psychotherapy Division of the APA.

It was extremely interesting for me to read this article. Thank you for it. I like such themes and anything that is connected to this matter. I would like to read more soon.