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Front. Psychol. | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00229

Inter-individual differences in heart rate variability are associated with inter-individual differences in empathy and alexithymia

 Alexander Lischke1*, Rike Pahnke2,  Anett Mau-Moeller3,  Martin Behrens2,  Hans J. Grabe4, Harald J. Freyberger4, 5,  Alfons O. Hamm1 and Matthias Weippert2
  • 1Department of Psychology, University of Greifswald, Germany
  • 2Institute of Sport Science, University of Rostock, Germany
  • 3Department of Orthopaedics, University of Rostock, Germany
  • 4Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, University of Greifswald, Germany
  • 5Helios Hospital, Germany

In the present study, we investigated whether inter-individual differences in vagally mediated heart rate variability (vmHRV) would be associated with inter-individual differences in empathy and alexithymia. To this end, we determined resting state HF-HRV in 90 individuals that also completed questionnaires assessing inter-individual differences in empathy and alexithymia. Our categorical and dimensional analyses revealed that inter-individual differences in HF-HRV were differently associated with inter-individual differences in empathy and alexithymia. We found that individuals with high HF-HRV reported more empathy and less alexithymia than individuals with low HF-HRV. Moreover, we even found that an increase in HF-HRV was associated with an increase in empathy and a decrease in alexithymia across all participants. Taken together, these findings indicate that individuals with high HF-HRV are more empathetic and less alexithymic than individuals with low HF-HRV. These differences in empathy and alexithymia may explain why individuals with high HF-HRV are more successful in sharing and understanding the mental and emotional states of others than individuals with low HF-HRV.

Keywords: social cognition, social interaction, Vagus Nerve, High-frequency heart rate variability, Empathy, alexithymia

Received: 26 Oct 2017; Accepted: 12 Feb 2018.

Edited by:

Katharina S. Goerlich, RWTH Aachen University, Germany

Reviewed by:

Volker M. Perlitz, Simplana GmbH, Germany
Georgia Panayiotou, University of Cyprus, Cyprus  

Copyright: © 2018 Lischke, Pahnke, Mau-Moeller, Behrens, Grabe, Freyberger, Hamm and Weippert. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Dr. Alexander Lischke, University of Greifswald, Department of Psychology, Greifswald, Germany, alexander.lischke@uni-greifswald.de