In June 2019, at the University of Birmingham in England, psychologist Damian Cruse invited 27 young adults to come to the lab, on separate occasions, and listen to the same clips from an audiobook of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Sitting alone, each donned headphones and electrocardiogram (EKG) equipment while a voice with a British accent recounted tales of a mysterious monster taking down ships. When researchers later compared volunteers’ heart rates, a curious phenomenon emerged: The heart rates of nearly two-thirds of the participants rose and fell together as the story progressed (1).
“It’s not that the beats align synchronously, but rather the heart rate fluctuations go up and down in unison,” explains Lucas Parra, a biomedical engineer at City College of New York, and co-senior author on the study.
Research has already shown that brain activity can synchronize when listeners pay attention to the same video or story (2). Now, Parra and others are finding that the heart, too, offers insight into who is really paying attention to a story. Potential applications are myriad. With heart rate recordings from smart watches, a webinar host may one day learn whether the audience is engaged, or a doctor could offer a family insight into whether a loved one will recover consciousness.
But the technology is new and researchers are still grappling with how to harness heart rate data responsibly, even as they continue to explore why stories move hearts in synchrony in the first place.