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Andrew Leader

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How are different body parts connected to the emotions we traditionally associate with them?

This week in my bioelectricity class, I learned about cardiac electrophysiology. Afterwords, I read an article about the growing field of neurocardiology: http://madurasinghe.blogspot.com/2008/06/neurocardiology-brain-in-heart.html. The heart’s nervous system contains over 40,000 neurons, and is sufficiently complex that it is referred to by some as its own “little-brain”. This little-brain communicates directly with the medulla in the brain-stem, both sending and receiving signals that have to do with hart rate, hormones, chemicals, and pressure in the heart. These signals help regulate other signals to blood vessels, glands and other organs, but they also “cascade up into the higher centers of the brain, where they may influence perception, decision making and other cognitive processes.”

This article made me wonder: Does perhaps the term “thinking with your heart” have a biological basis after all? How did the heart become the symbol of love? How might this association relate to the connection between emotion and heart health, and what makes up this connection in the first place?

To explore the biological basis of emotional experience, particularly as we traditionally associate these experiences with different parts of the body, I also watched the TED talk “Trust, Morality – and Oxytocin” (http://blog.ted.com/2011/11/01/trust-morality-and-oxytocin-paul-zak-on-ted-com/), in which Paul Zak talks about how oxytocin (a mammalian hormone) increases trustworthiness, generosity, empathy, while oxytocin release is inhibited by high stress.

And so I ask the TED Community: What connections might exist between body parts and the meanings we associate with them? For example, when we say we have a “gut feeling,” how might it relate to the activity of our autonomic nervous system on the GI tract? What about the emotional meanings we associate with the eyes, mouth, hands, and so on? Could age-old associations between body parts and emotion be rooted in biology?

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    • Mar 23 2012: Very interesting! Thanks for sharing it.
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      Mar 23 2012: This really is quite interesting. I'm always excited to read about these types of research. A couple notes:

      1. If it is actually so simple as "contraction furrows = neurotic; crypt lines = warm-hearted/trustworthy," shouldn't we have evolved to make this simple distinction? Perhaps you can get a lot of information from looking into someones eyes, but personally, I thought the eye on the left looked more inviting than the one on the right. Maybe I just have a low intelligence for looking at eyes.

      2. A quote from the article: "They say the findings could one day be used...by companies screening candidates for jobs."
      I actually find this quite scary! Have we come all this way towards ending discrimination between people of different sexes and skin color, only to discriminate based on genes and iris scan?
      • Mar 23 2012: I found it interesting that the article about the eyes as well as the one about the heart transplant both came from the same source UK Daily Mail.
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        Mar 26 2012: Hi Andrew, seems to me that the eye scan is more for identification (instead of finger prints) than to discriminate.
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          Mar 26 2012: If I recall, the article suggests that the eye scan could be used for hiring purposes. The jist of the article is that the iris may reveal certain personality features. Sounds like they're saying they should only take people with one type of iris in order to hopefully get certain personalities. Sounds like discrimination to me.
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      Mar 23 2012: http://www.google.be/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CDEQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fciteseerx.ist.psu.edu%2Fviewdoc%2Fdownload%3Fdoi%3D10.1.1.128.4188%26rep%3Drep1%26type%3Dpdf&ei=b1RsT5rnFMb28QOetozBDQ&usg=AFQjCNEWpl45YuP_YsXk51eb5E4VTHalXg&sig2=QEypmV2BxDQJWwAqwldFcg

      If you read the article, the correlations are quite llow (less than .20) and given the high number of correlations they tested, I think they are spurious (i.e. due to random effects).

      A correlation under .20 means that the proportion explained variance is less than 4%

      Hence it (iris features) can tell (almost) nothing about personality.
      • Mar 23 2012: Applause for the caution - Let's be more literal - Eyes are window to the SOUL - I doubt there's any hard science on that!
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      Mar 24 2012: Hey Rafael,

      I think its interesting how all of these relationships between body parts and emotion seem to emerge. However, it seems like there are two distinct groups present: there are the scientifically driven cases, and then the experience driven cases.

      The article you posted reminded me immediately about an experience driven case, palm reading, for some reason. Palm reading has been around for a long time, and it is still around today. However, I couldn't find any kind of scientific studies that relate brain activity or personality to the patterns on our hands.

      To bring relevance to our bioelectricity class, this whole idea seems to parallel the inverse and forward problem. Given our knowledge of the brain, we can say, to some extent, that left handed people think more creatively while right handed people think more logically. Along the same lines, palm reading attempts to conclude things about us by presupposing that the hand lines are influenced by the brain and our behavior.

      Just as we study EKGs to learn more about the heart, we should be able to learn about us by studying our eyes, as your article showed.

      Although Christophe has shown that the particular experiment done does not reveal much, from a scientific stand-point, that's not to say that we can't use science to keep trying to figure it out.

      Suppose for some reason palm reading or eye reading were a field as large as heart studies - given that we pooled enough time and resources into research, do you think we would ever find a relationship between iris features and personality (in the same way that we are trying to learn about the heart from EKGs)? Or do we leave it as a more experience-based thing, e.g. this pattern means this, that pattern means that, etc.?
      • Mar 25 2012: Ah, the wood thrown in the fire of the discussion burns with good, bright light. I should have put in the standard disclaimer of not reflecting my own opinion. Just an interesting article (certainly not mine) directly relating to the discussion. Not scientific by any means. Might be scratching the surface of something very ancient though, stuff science doesn't know yet or that we've somehow "forgotten. " I've never believed in palm reading - never had my palm read. But this is a great topic of discussion. Thanks.
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        Mar 27 2012: your comment about palm reading makes me wonder: how much of what we might attribute to our bodies actually is something derived from something like human communication? I always suspected that people who are palm readers are just naturally good at judging character and reading people-- and that that is how they can stunningly tell you about yourself. In response to what you say about this being something like an inverse problem, i wonder (though doubt) if there is anything meaningful to study about the corresponding forward problem. By that I mean: have you ever had the physical sensation that you were upset or worried, but couldnt mentally put your finger on what it was? Meaning, can our physical emotions tell us something about our mental emotions?

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