Georgia Tech Research Shows Listening to Heartbeats ‘Boosts’ Empathy

Lab Study demonstrates new auditory technique to change emotional perception and connection

Not judging someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes is an old saying that can remind people to have more empathy. Georgia Tech has a new twist on this old advice: listen to their heartbeat.

In a paper published at CHI 2021, Georgia Tech researchers hypothesized that hearing the heartbeat of another person would increase the listener’s empathic connection with that person. To test this hypothesis, they designed an experiment that paired auditory heartbeats with expressive images of eyes, the well-known Reading the Mind in the Eyes Task.

Mike Winters

To perform their research, they modified the original study to include slow and fast auditory heartbeats. For each trial, participants responded to two questions: 1) What is this person feeling? and 2) How well could you feel what they were feeling? The experiment recruited 27 participants and included 144 trials. 

“In our analysis, we found that hearing auditory heartbeats changed listeners’ perspective on the emotional state of the other person and increased their reported ability to ‘feel what the other was feeling,’” said Mike Winters, lead investigator and recent Georgia Tech Ph.D. graduate. “The changes we observed also depended on whether or not the heartbeat tempo (i.e. heart rate) matched or mismatched the expression in the eyes.”

Additionally, the team analyzed electroencephalograms (EEGs) and electrocardiograms (ECGs) to understand what happened to participant’s hearts when they performed the task. The team found that listening to heartbeats decreased heart rate and produced within the participants a change in cardiac cortical processing called the heartbeat-evoked potential (HEP). 

“Hearing heartbeats may have increased attention toward the other person, triggering an orienting response and reduced interoception,” said Winters. 

Winters conducted the research in the newly formed Brain Music Lab, led by Grace Leslie in the Georgia Tech School of Music. The study applied knowledge of the well-known emotional effects of musical tempo with applied knowledge in sonification and experimental design that Winters had picked up working with Bruce Walker in the Sonification Lab. Winters developed expertise in EEG analysis and physiological computing through previous research in brain-computer interfaces with Melody Moore Jackson and Gil Weinberg.

Heart rate sensing has become increasingly common in wearable technologies. Mainstream apps such as Digital Touch on the Apple Watch now allow users to “send your heartbeat” to another person. Previous research at CHI had demonstrated that perceiving such “expressive biosignals” can elicit empathy and other pro-social effects, but this work had largely been limited to visual displays. Winters and his team were the first to demonstrate multidimensional empathic effects using auditory heartbeats in a controlled laboratory study. Auditory heartbeats can convey emotional information that is hidden from view. This signal may be valuable for people seeking an alternative to traditional visual displays of emotion.

“This work establishes a baseline for empathic auditory interfaces, and offers a method to evaluate the effects of future designs,” wrote Winters, currently a research affiliate in the Socioneural Physiology Lab, part of the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University.

A short introduction to the methodology and media from the study is available here. The research paper Can You Hear My Heartbeat?: Hearing an Expressive Biosignal Elicits Empathy is coauthored by Winters, Bruce Walker, and Grace Leslie. It is part of the proceedings of the Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI), taking place virtually May 8-13.  This research was supported by National Science Foundation grant IIS EAGER 1550397.


Joshua Preston
Communications Manager
College of Computing