I’ve remembered for years one particular line from Dangerous Liaisons. In a conversation between two conniving characters, played by Glenn Close and John Malkovich, one says to the other regarding the people they’re conspiring to deceive, “They’re intellectuals and, like most intellectuals, incredibly stupid.”
I also recall sitting at a dinner table listening to very bright people carry on inane conversations. Later, as I wondered how such smart people could sound so dumb, I realized that those who are out of touch with their feelings are cut off from a whole other way of knowing.
Aristotle identified the heart as the seat of both intelligence and the Soul. William James, the father of modern psychology, pointed out that though the brain can perceive a threat, it is the physical and emotional response to the perception of threat that mobilizes a person to action.
Recent scientific studies now prove that people with greater awareness of their bodily sensations are more in touch with their emotions and intuition. They are also better able to read, understand and empathize with the feelings of others. Thus, they live a richer emotional life – for better and for worse.
Discovering how a change of heart – literally – creates a change of mind is an area of growing interest to neuroscientists. Agustin Ibanez of the Favaloro University in Buenos Aires, had the opportunity to work with a patient who had a mechanical pump installed to support his failing human heart. The thump of the machine replaced his sense of his own hear beat, which distorted his body image – and affected his social and emotional skills.
In the abstract to a study entitled, “Listening to your heart. How interoception shapes emotional experience and intuitive decision-making,” the researchers concluded that, there is “strong supporting evidence for bodily feedback theories .. suggesting that cognitive-affective processing does in significant part relate to ‘following the heart.’”
Ibanez is now testing people who have had full heart transplants to see how it influences their awareness of their own internal sensations. Because damage to the vagal nerve could interrupt the flow of signals between the heart and brain, he wants to see just how it impacts their cognition – as well as their sense of connection to their bodies.
As reported in an article on BBC.com, Ibanez found that brain scans of patients who spoke of feeling estranged from their bodies revealed “a breakdown in communication across the anterior insula – a deep fold of the cortex that is, tellingly, implicated in body awareness, emotional perception, empathy decision-making and the sense of self.”
Patients with long-term depression – who have a well-analyzed problem but no emotional relief from its symptoms – are often out-of-touch with their body’s sensations. They are therefore deprived of the healing benefits of simple pleasures. Thus it is fortunate that greater awareness can be learned – through mindfulness-based therapies. And such awareness of ourselves can only make us smarter.
Given that we are constantly receiving messages from within our own bodies – as well as from our environment (even at a great distance) – coming to our senses makes it possible to access the extended range of information our animal bodies are capable of perceiving and our brains of processing.