Story at a glance

  • People’s heart rates and breathing can sync up with shared experiences.
  • Researchers wonder about how often this happens.
  • A series of studies suggest that participants’ heart rates fluctuate in the same patterns when they are listening to a story and paying attention to the action.

When you are in a deep conversation with a friend who is telling you a compelling story, your heart rate and breathing may synchronize to match theirs. Research suggests that this kind of synchronization can happen when sharing an experience, but new research suggests that it doesn’t have to be in person for syncing up to happen.

In a study published in Cell Reports, researchers measure synchronization in participants in several experiments.

“There's a lot of literature demonstrating that people synchronize their physiology with each other. But the premise is that somehow you're interacting and physically present the same place,” said co-senior author on the study Lucas Parra, a professor at City College of New York, in a press release. “What we have found is that the phenomenon is much broader, and that simply following a story and processing stimulus will cause similar fluctuations in people's heart rates. It's the cognitive function that drives your heart rate up or down.”

Interestingly, they found that when people are listening to a story, they also synchronize their physiology. The team set up four experiments to examine when this happens. In one experiment, participants listened to the audio book of Jules Verne's “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” Their heart rate while listening was measured by electrocardiogram (EKG), and the researchers found that most listeners had increases and decreases in their heart rates at the same points in the story.

In another experiment, participants watched instructional videos. The researchers suspected that because these videos are not emotional it could help them figure out if emotion was playing a part in how the heart rate of viewers fluctuates. The first time watching the videos, participants had similar fluctuations, but on the second viewing, while counting backwards in their heads to decrease the attention towards the video, the researchers saw a drop in synchronization.


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A third experiment involved children’s stories and two groups, one without distractions and one with. And lastly, a fourth experiment similar to the first recruited participants with disorders of consciousness like comas or vegetative states. The team found that people with these disorders had lower synchronization.

This series of experiments suggests that a person can’t just hear a story and that listening to the stories is important for heart rate synchronization.

“What's important is that the listener is paying attention to the actions in the story,” adds co-senior author Jacobo Sitt, a researcher at the Paris Brain Institute and Inserm, in the press release. “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.”


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Published on Sep 18, 2021