“There is a wisdom of the head, and a wisdom of the heart,” Charles Dickens wrote in his novel Hard Times. But a new study suggests the heart could have a large influence on the wisdom of the head, after finding people with greater heart rate variability may have wiser judgement.

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People with greater heart rate variability may have wiser judgement, new research suggests.

Lead researcher Prof. Igor Grossman, of the Department of Psychology at the University of Waterloo, Canada, and colleagues publish their findings in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

In general, wisdom is defined as possessing knowledge and experience and having good judgement.

Prof. Grossman and colleagues note that an increasingly popular notion among cognitive scientists and philosophers is that wise judgement is “recognizing the limits of one’s knowledge, being aware of the varied contexts of life and how they may unfold over time, acknowledge other people’s points of view, and search for reconciliation of opposing viewpoints.”

While many individuals believe such aspects are solely driven by cognitive functioning, the team notes that some behavioral scientists have suggested the heart may also play a role in wisdom.

To investigate this association further, the researchers enrolled 150 participants from the University of Western Sydney, Australia, who were an average age of 25.

Participants were required to take part in a series of tasks, including a social reasoning task and an attributional judgement task. As part of these tasks, subjects were required to offer their opinion on social issues they felt strongly about, from both a first- and third-person perspective.

The participants’ resting heart rates were measured during each task using an electrocardiogram (ECG).

When asked about their opinions on social issues from a third-person perspective, participants with greater heart rate variation were found to reason in a wiser, less biased manner than those with lower heart rate variation.

However, when asked to reflect about societal issues from a first-person perspective, no association between heart rate variation and wiser judgement was identified.

The researchers define heart rate variability as the variation in the time interval between heartbeats.

Explaining what their findings mean, Prof. Grossmann says:

Our research shows that wise reasoning is not exclusively a function of the mind and cognitive ability. We found that people who have greater heart rate variability and who are able to think about social problems from a distanced viewpoint demonstrate a greater capacity for wise reasoning.”

Prof. Grossman says it was already known that individuals with greater heart rate variation tend to have better executive functioning, such as working memory, than those with lower heart rate variation.

However, he points out that this does not necessarily mean people with greater heart rate variation are wiser; such individuals may have to reflect on issues from a third-person perspective in order to achieve wiser judgement.

“[…] some people may use their cognitive skills to make unwise decisions. To channel their cognitive abilities for wiser judgment, people with greater heart rate variability first need to overcome their egocentric viewpoints,” he says.

Last September, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting low heart rate variability may affect the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).