Heart rate variability is associated with emotion recognition: direct evidence for a relationship between the autonomic nervous system and social cognition

Int J Psychophysiol. 2012 Nov;86(2):168-72. doi: 10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2012.08.012. Epub 2012 Aug 30.


It is well established that heart rate variability (HRV) plays an important role in social communication. Polyvagal theory suggests that HRV may provide a sensitive marker of one's ability to respond and recognize social cues. The aim of the present study was to directly test this hypothesis. Resting-state HRV was collected and performance on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test was assessed in 65 volunteers. HRV was positively associated with performance on this emotion recognition task confirming our hypothesis and these findings were retained after controlling for a variety of confounding variables known to influence HRV - sex, BMI, smoking habits, physical activity levels, depression, anxiety, and stress. Our data suggests that increased HRV may provide a novel marker of one's ability to recognize emotions in humans. Implications for understanding the biological basis of emotion recognition, and social impairment in humans are discussed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Female
  • Heart Rate / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Recognition, Psychology / physiology*
  • Social Behavior*
  • Young Adult