How Stories Can Influence Our Physiology
A recent study shows that auditory stimuli and narratives have a clear and reproducible effect on our heart rate
No one will be too surprised to hear that certain aspects of stories — say a surprise scare in a horror movie — can influence our physiology, specifically our heart rate.
What is however more interesting is the result of a recent study published in Cell Reports which showed that healthy individuals who independently listened to the same story showed clear correlations in their overall heart rate patterns. And it’s the cognitive processing of the story, not our emotional response, which drives the synchronized heart rate changes.
“It’s not about emotions, but about being engaged and attentive, and thinking about what will happen next. Your heart responds to those signals from the brain.”
Even for narratives that are free of emotional triggers, like simple instructional video, a clear heart rate synchronization could be observed.
As anyone who has followed my previous writing will know, breathing is one of the most direct ways to control our heart rate, and the relation between the breath and the heart forms the basis for traditional heart rate variability (HRV) biofeedback training.
Interestingly, and quite surprisingly, the study showed that while heart rates synchronized between individuals listening to the same story, their breathing did not show the same kind of correlation.
This suggests that there are two completely independent mechanisms at play, both separately influencing the heart rate: cognitive processing of narratives, and breathing.
While the study did not consider any implications for HRV biofeedback training, I immediately had to think about its potential applications there.
The results clearly show that auditory stimuli can directly influence heart rate in a replicable way. My immediate question: What if these auditory stimuli and the cognitive processing they induce are specifically designed to be in sync with the breathing pattern of HRV biofeedback training? Can these two unrelated effects be stacked to further enhance resonance characteristics? If yes, would the stacked effect be beneficial for the long-term training effect or actually lead to less adaptation?
Music is just another form of narrative, and as the authors mention in the paper:
“We expect that HR fluctuations will also synchronize across subjects listening to engaging music.”
One question I had since setting out to create Yudemon and use music and sound to improve HRV training was whether there are universal auditory stimuli that can achieve the desired effect for the majority of people, or whether the response to sound would be highly individual.
The results of this study made me more optimistic that the former might be the case, and that I can develop more or less universal sonic experiences (ultimately with some responsive real-time personalizations) which will enhance biofeedback training.
While there are still many unanswered questions and the research has just begun to scratch the surface of this vast and fascinating topic, I will keep working on Yudemon, and hopefully soon be able to share its experience, which combines breathing and auditory stimuli, with you.