When people talk about love, they often talk about “two hearts beating as one.” I tend to roll my eyes when I hear clichés like this because, in my training as a psychologist, I have come to understand love as being a product of the brain, with the heart having little, and quite possibly nothing to do with it. However, recent research suggests that perhaps we’ve been too quick to dismiss the role of the old ticker.
In a fascinating new study, researchers recorded what happened to the heart rates of both observers and performers during a fire-walking ritual. In such a ritual, people walk over a firey bed of coals one at a time while a crowd watches on, often as a test of faith or courage. All participants in this study wore heart rate monitors for the duration of the event. Results revealed that the heart rhythms of people walking over hot coals actually synchronized with those of the onlookers. However, this was only the case when the fire walker was a close friend or relative of the observer; when the performer was unknown to the observer, their heart rates failed to mirror each another.
How do we explain these findings? That’s not entirely clear. Given that heart rate changes occurred among both relatives and friends in this study, it seems clear that genetics cannot fully account for the observed changes. Thus, there would appear to be something deeper going on here. For instance, one possibility is that human beings have evolved a tendency to mimic the body rhythms of those we are closest to because it facilitates bonding.
Future research will undoubtedly examine whether these effects are observed in other types of situations and, also, whether greater heart beat synchronization is linked to better relationship quality. While we still have much to learn, the results of this study suggest that the heart is more important than previously thought and perhaps deserves its status as the ultimate symbol of love after all.
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To read more about this research, see: Konvalinka, I., Xygalatas, D., Bulbulia, J., Schjodt, U., Jegindo, E. M., Wallot, S., … Roepstorff, A. (in press). Synchronized arousal between performers and related spectators in a fire-walking ritual. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1016955108
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