Cupid science unlocks link between heart and mind

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 February, 2012, 12:00am


When patients are rushed to hospital for chest pain, it is more often than not a case of fat blocking the arteries - a problem fixed by surgery.

But in some rare cases, a patient may be suffering from a condition whose name is more likely to be found in a love song than on a doctor's clipboard: broken heart syndrome (BHS).

It is just as painful but often leaves no trace in the arteries. The heart's left ventricle is swollen like a balloon, and for a short while the heart stops beating for no apparent physiological reason - a condition called takotsubo cardiomyopathy.

Takotsubo is the Japanese term for 'octopus trap', which is what the swollen ventricle looks like. Yet most patients who have this survive, and the symptoms go away on their own.

Doctors don't even know what is happening until they consult the patient's history. Often, people with BHS have suffered tremendous grief, such as losing a loved one. This proves that casual phrases like 'broken heart' may have more scientific basis than people think.

Broken heart syndrome is not the only example of emotional metaphors being bolstered by scientific research, which reinforce how interconnected our minds and bodies are.

'There's the intuition that physical state affects mind', which is perhaps why many such metaphors exist, says Dilip Soman, a professor at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. Soman also teaches several joint programmes at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology's business school.

This field of study has its roots in 1979, when Americans George Lakoff, a linguist, and philosopher Mark Johnson published a seminal book titled Metaphors We Live By. They wrote: 'Metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language, but in thought and action.'

But only in recent years have empirical experiments been proving their theories. Take temperature markers for personality: 'warm' people are generally deemed friendlier than people perceived as 'cold'.

Psychologist John Bargh's team at Yale University took the temperature concept further in a 2008 study which found that people's perceptions of others could be influenced by physical sensations, such as whether they were holding hot or cold drinks.

Participants holding a cup of hot coffee were more likely to judge a stranger's personality as higher in emotional warmth than those with iced coffee, the study found.

Bargh and Soman are part of a growing group of researchers studying 'embodied cognition', which holds that the mind is influenced by the body's form.

Soman has recently been working with National University of Singapore researchers Xue Zheng and Jayanth Narayanan on the embodied cognition of weight. They explore what is behind everyday phrases such as 'I feel light and free' or 'I feel weighed down by guilt'.

Soman was inspired by his Indian heritage. 'All of the good guards and angels in Indian mythology were ... not heavy,' he said.

One deity was described in literature as a floating god known for his truthfulness. But once this deity lied, he 'sank down to earth', Soman said.

So was there perhaps a connection between physical weight and feelings of heaviness or lightness?

In the study led by Soman, researchers gave half the participants a word-search puzzle filled with 'heavy' words like rock, ton and weighty. The other group was given a puzzle with 'light' words like feather, balloon and cloud. The sample size, however, was not specified.

After completing the puzzle, each participant was given identical finger sandwiches and had to report how full they felt after eating them.

The participants exposed to 'heavy' words not only reported feeling fuller, but they also took fewer muffins from a basket that researchers had innocuously left out in the open for everyone.

The researchers presented some of their results - although the study is as yet unpublished - at the Association for Consumer Research's North American Conference last year.

Indeed, the study has rich implications for consumer research. Just imagine the marketing potential of a diet where people need only focus on 'heavy' words so they would eat less.

In a similar vein, Bargh, the Yale psychologist, and his colleagues have also studied how physical touch and weight affect people's behaviour.

In one experiment, they asked participants to hold either heavy or light clipboards while interviewing other people. Those holding the heavy clipboards were found to take their task more seriously - or, put another way, 'they put more weight on their work'.

Again, their findings' implications go well beyond the lab. Does this mean, for instance, that people will think a book is more important if it has more pages? Booksellers and authors will surely want to know.

Beyond marketing, these mind-body connections also have healing potential. At the University of Hong Kong's Centre on Behavioural Health, director Rainbow Ho Tin-hung uses dance therapy to help her patients - and gauges their psychological states based on the movement of the patients' bodies.

'When you're more happy, we can tell you're more open,' she says, spreading her arms. 'When sad, you're closed.'

Ho compares human defence mechanisms to the gill slits of a jawless fish that lived thousands of years ago. The slits opened automatically to absorb nutrients when water conditions were favourable, but closed in bad conditions.

The gill slits' human equivalent, according to Ho, is the pharyngeal arch that appears in the embryonic stage and eventually develops into the muscles around our mouths and eyes - parts that we can open or close to protect ourselves or help us respond to environmental stimuli. And if shutting parts of our bodies means protecting ourselves from harm, perhaps this is why we call a step in emotional healing as 'closure'.

Physical acts may lift emotional burdens, if a study published last year by Soman and two others is any proof.

In 'Sealing the Emotions Genie: The Effects of Physical Enclosure on Pyschological Enclosure', they found that people could alleviate negative emotions by writing down their regrets and issues, and putting them away in envelopes.

So if you get a dose of unwanted drama on Valentine's Day, keep in mind that science has found numerous cures to a heavy heart.