Awareness of Other People’s Heartbeats Affects Intimacy

Though there are many technologies and platforms nowadays that connect people with one another, loneliness is common in Western countries. Compared with data from 1985, people were three times less likely to have someone in their lives to discuss important matters with in 2004. New technologies can now exploit body responses to stimulations, which are cues to human emotions. Sensing the other person’s heartbeat may be a cue to one’s perception of closeness. Here, the first study used self-reporting and behavioral tracking in an immersive virtual environment to show that sensing or hearing other’s heartbeats affects social behavior in the same way as conventional indications of intimacy do. The second study demonstrated that just hearing the heartbeats was not enough; the respondent also needed to know that they are coming from the partner engaged in the dialogue.

Physical and mental well-being of human beings depends on proximity to others; married people are known to survive cancer more than singles. The need for belongingness and intimacy is an encouragement for the advantages of living and working close together in society, but loneliness reduces happiness and even your lifespan. Loneliness is on the rise in developed countries. The development of new technologies like the Cube, a virtual 3D cube that allows couples to place symbols for the other to see, help to improve the sense of belongingness and increase connectedness and intimacy. Emoticons are used to represent emotions in online chatting and communication. “Increased emotion recognition accuracy between partners will also lead to increased marital satisfaction and relationship quality,” theorizes the researchers. Body language, like the holding of gaze, can be used to improve new ways of communication. Awareness of changes in one’s own heartbeat is related to how intensely people feel emotions. This study demonstrates how awareness of the other person’s heartbeat can affect intimacy, using Immersive Virtual Environment (IVE).

* In this study, the participants were kept in a fully immersive virtual environment. They were asked to wear a head mounted display (HMD), which had sensors to track their location and head movements. The experimenter was able to manipulate sounds and virtual presence of the participants and record their movements.
* In test 1, each of the 32 participants was kept in the virtual room with a same-sex stranger and some of them were able to hear the sound of heartbeats. They were asked to focus either on the eyes or the chin of the stranger, who was either at a distance of 3 or 9 feet away from the participants. The participants later reported how close they felt to the stranger during this procedure.
* In test 2, each of the 32 participants was kept in a virtual room with a stranger. The participants either heard nothing, or heard only artificial heartbeats, or heard the heartbeats that they believed belonged to the stranger in the virtual room. Each of the participants was asked to walk up to the stranger to a comfortable distance.

* In test 1, when the heartbeats were heard, the participants perceived their closeness to the stranger to be more intimate, and they tried to maintain more distance from the stranger. This was found to be similar to the previously reported perception of interpersonal distance while holding the stranger’s gaze.
* Test 2 confirmed that when the participants believed themselves to be too close to the stranger, they tried to increase the interpersonal distance.
* The results showed that the distance maintained was larger in the scenario with real heartbeat than in cases where there was silence and artificial heartbeats.

Shortcomings/next steps
Unlike nonverbal body language, the perception of someone else’s heartbeat is an unfamiliar signal. This may have affected the participants’ perception of closeness during the study. In future studies, the participants should be first exposed to the heartbeat sounds repeatedly. Also, the sound of heartbeats has sociological connotation, which may affect the results of the study. Other biosignals, for example, body heat, need to be tested as cues for physical intimacy.

Today, long-distance communication has made it hard for people to develop closeness. Features like poke or emoticons in online communication mode help people to share their feelings. Understanding how one responds physically to closeness will inform improvement strategies for these technologies. This study shows that hearing a person’s heartbeat sound can make us feel physically closer to him/her. In scenarios where emotional displays are nonexistent (chat rooms), communicating heartbeat information can convey one’s emotions precisely. Exploiting this aspect may improve closeness between individuals, reducing loneliness to a large extent. Heartbeat communication may help improve appreciation of emotions and hence, the social connectedness between people. This leads to a future in which natural emotional communication can be augmented by new technologies that accommodate the biosignals carrying people’s emotions.

For More Information:
Intimate Heartbeats: Opportunities for Communication Technology Based on Emotions
Publication Journal: IEEE Transactions on Affective Computing, July-December 2010
By Joris Janssen; Jeremy Bailenson; Eindhoven University of Technology, Eindhoven, the Netherlands; Stanford University, Palo Alto, California

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