To Get Better at Reading People’s Feelings, Pay Attention to Your Own Body

Photo: Nina Sinitskaya/Getty Images

Even if you’re too busy — or too skeptical, or too fidgety — to be a person who’s into meditation, there’s a lot to be said for taking a few moments now and then to pause and focus on the rhythms of your body: the rise and fall of your chest, the air rushing in and out of your nose, the beat of your heart. Interoception, or a sense of the inner workings of your body, has been linked to better decision-making skills and a more finely tuned understanding of your own emotions. And according to a study recently published in the journal Cortex and highlighted in New Scientist, the benefits extend beyond your own little bubble of one: Interoception can also make us better at understanding other people.

For the first part of the study, the authors asked participants to mentally count out their heartbeats using a strictly hands-off approach (no touching their wrist to take their pulse). As a next step, the subjects watched short videos of people speaking to one another, then filled out survey questions about what they imagined those people were thinking and feeling.

The better people were at measuring their heartbeats — in other words, the more interoception they demonstrated — the better they were at reading the emotions of the characters they saw onscreen. (although, as New Scientist noted, the same didn’t hold true for reading thoughts that didn’t have to do with emotions, like guessing intent). “It’s not yet been shown whether training your interoception also improves your empathy, but it’s an experiment we’d like to try,” study co-author Geoff Bird, a psychologist at the University of Oxford, told New Scientist. At the very least, it can’t hurt. Find a few minutes to focus, really focus, on your physical self, and, if nothing else, you’ll walk away feeling a little more Zen.

To Be More Empathetic, Pay Attention to Your Own Body