Seeking and Speaking from the Heart: Influences of Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia on Facial Mimicry and Expressed Compassion Public Deposited

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  • March 19, 2019
  • Isgett, Suzannah
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Psychology and Neuroscience
  • Humans engage in affiliative, nonverbal behaviors, but the extent to which they do depends on context and individual indices of cardiac vagal activity (measured as respiratory sinus arrhythmia or RSA). RSA has been associated with many prosocial outcomes, yet few studies have actually examined its relationship with nonverbal behaviors. In Study 1, a sample of undergraduates (N = 75) viewed blocks of emotional faces (happy or sad) after a resting period, after a threat induction, and after a safety induction. Physiological measures and facial electromyography of the zygomaticus major, orbicularis oculi, and corrugator supercilii muscles were recorded. Analyses revealed that, under perceived threat, facial mimicry was enhanced, and this relationship depended on tonic RSA, such that higher tonic RSA significantly predicted relatively greater increases in facial mimicry under perceived threat. In Study 2, I sought to determine whether and to what extent measures of tonic and phasic RSA were associated with prosodic and linguistic cues of expressed compassion. A sample of 85 undergraduate participants provided baseline recordings and engaged in two tasks that elicited differentiable changes in RSA: a visual attention task to elicit vagal withdrawal, and a guided meditation to elicit vagal elevation. They then recorded two messages (expressed compassion and control) to a person in their lives who was suffering. To evaluate the effectiveness of expressed compassion, I subjected recordings to acoustic analysis, obtained listener ratings of perceived compassion from content-filtered speech, and analyzed the word content of messages. Results suggested that greater baseline RSA was associated with heightened prosodic cues of compassion (i.e., speaking more quietly), but that greater vagal withdrawal was associated with dampened prosodic cues, diminished listener-rated compassion, and an increased likelihood of using anxiety-related words. This multi-method approach demonstrated an effective technique to reliably obtain context-specific measures of RSA reactivity, and suggests the ways in which these indices of parasympathetic activity relate to social engagement behaviors. Overall, the present research provided evidence that indices of parasympathetic control are useful tools in understanding individuals’ capacity to socially engage. Implications for relationship formation and wellbeing are discussed.
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  • In Copyright
  • Gates, Kathleen
  • Fredrickson, Barbara
  • Algoe, Sara
  • Sheeran, Paschal
  • Muscatell, Keely
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School
Graduation year
  • 2017

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