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Blind People Are More Accurate at Counting Their Heartbeats

A blind man using a stick to navigate stairs.

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Blind people can detect their own heartbeat better than sighted people, finds a new study coauthored by researchers from Karolinska Institutet in Sweden and Jagiellonian University in Poland.

The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Emotions and interoception

Our ability to sense the inside of our own bodies is called interoception. Faults in our interoceptive ability are thought to be linked to stress responses and some psychiatric conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder. Development of interoceptive capacity is thought to facilitate sensory awareness and improve emotional regulation.

In the new study, 36 blind volunteers and a matched number of sighted participants were asked to count their own heartbeats – without touching their pulse. Researchers used pulse oximeters to measure their actual heart rate while they were counting.

The results showed that blind people were significantly more accurate at detecting their heart rate. Where 1.0 represents a perfect accuracy, blind participants had an accuracy of 0.78 on average, versus a score of 0.63 for sighted people.

“We know that heart signals and emotions are closely interlinked; for example our hearts beat faster when we experience fear. It is possible that blind individuals’ enhanced sensitivity to signals from their own heart also impacts their emotional experiences,” says Dominika Radziun, a PhD student in the Department of Neuroscience at Karolinsta Institutet.

Investigating brain changes

“It gives us important information about the brain’s plasticity and how the loss of one sense can enhance others, in this case the ability to feel what happens inside your own body,” Radziun added.

Radziun and colleagues now intend to study further how blind people perceive their bodies and will examine whether increased ability to assess signals from within the body is linked to structural changes in brain regions responsible for vision.

Reference: Radziun D, Korczyk M, Crucianelli L, Szwed M, Ehrsson HH. Heartbeat counting accuracy is enhanced in blind individuals. J Exp Psychol Gen. Published online March 23, 2023. doi:10.1037/xge0001366

This article is a rework of a press release issued by Karolinska Institutet. Material has been edited for length and content. 

Meet the Author
Ruairi J Mackenzie
Ruairi J Mackenzie
Senior Science Writer