Threat and the Body: How the Heart Supports Fear Processing

Abstract

Mental processes depend upon a dynamic integration of brain and body. Emotions encompass internal physiological changes which, through interoception (sensing bodily states), underpin emotional feelings, for example, cardiovascular arousal can intensify feelings of fear and anxiety. The brain is informed about how quickly and strongly the heart is beating by signals from arterial baroreceptors. These fire in bursts after each heartbeat, and are quiet between heartbeats. The processing of fear stimuli is selectively enhanced by these phasic signals, and these inhibit the processing of other types of stimuli including physical pain. Behavioural and neuroimaging studies detail this differential impact of heart signals on the processing of salient stimuli, and add to knowledge linking rhythmic activity in brain and body to perceptual consciousness.

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