The surprising connection between heart rate and wisdom
Thursday, April 21, 2016
According to Aristotle, "Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom." Although wisdom may be difficult to define, people generally recognize it when they encounter it.
Most psychologists agree wisdom involves an integration of knowledge, experience and deep understanding that incorporates tolerance for the uncertainties of life as well as its ups and downs. That said, researchers now believe wisdom is a matter of both heart and mind, touting that fluctuations in our heartbeats may, in fact, affect our wisdom.
According to Igor Grossmann, professor of psychology at University of Waterloo, Ontario, and colleagues, their study breaks new ground in wisdom research by identifying conditions under which psychophysiology impacts wise judgment.
Human heart rate tends to fluctuate even during steady-state conditions, such as sitting. As we know, heart rate variability (HRV) refers to the variation in the time interval between heartbeats and is related to the nervous system's control of organ functions. This study is the first to show that the physiology of the heart — specifically the variability of heart rate during low physical activity — is related to less biased, wiser judgment.
In this study, researchers assessed behavioral processes reflecting wisdom-related judgment in two ways. First, they asked participants to reason about societal issues and examined their narratives for multiple aspects of wisdom-related reasoning strategies. Second, researchers asked participants to reflect on desirable/undesirable acts committed by another person and tested whether their judgments of those acts relied on biased dispositional explanations or more balanced situation-sensitive explanations.
Throughout the study, researchers measured the resting electrophysiological signature of the heart — HRV — obtaining a range of time- and frequency-domain HRV indicators. To examine how self-distancing moderates the relationship between wisdom-related judgment and HRV, participants were randomly assigned to adopt a self-distanced as compared to the self-immersed perspective when reflecting on the social issue.
As hypothesized, in the self-distanced condition, each HRV indicator was positively related to prevalence of wisdom-related reasoning (e.g., recognition of limits of one's knowledge, recognition that the world is in flux/change, consideration of others' opinions and search for an integration of these opinions) and to balanced vs. biased attributions (recognition of situational and dispositional factors vs. focus on dispositional factors alone).
In contrast, there was no relationship between these variables in the self-immersed condition.
The researchers found people with more varied heart rates were able to reason in a wiser, less biased fashion about societal problems when they were instructed to reflect on a social issue from a third-person perspective. But, when the study participants were instructed to reason about the issue from a first-person perspective, no relationship between heart rate and wiser judgment emerged.
According to Grossmann, it has been known that people with greater variation in their heart rates show superior performance in the brain's executive functioning such as working memory. However, that does not necessarily mean these people are wiser; in fact, some people may use their cognitive skills to make unwise decisions.
To channel their cognitive abilities for wiser judgment, people with greater heart rate variability first need to overcome their egocentric viewpoints. The study opens the door for further exploration of wise judgment at the intersection of physiological and cognitive research.
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