A recent study suggests that drivers are more likely to suffer a traffic accident if an obstacle appears at the same time… than a heartbeat.
The probability of having a traffic accident often depends on our reaction time. Several factors can influence it. Drinking alcohol, answering the phone or texting while driving, for example. But did you know that your heart rate could also play a role? This is indeed what emerges from a study conducted by Sarah Garfinkel and her team, from the University of Sussex (United Kingdom).
To examine how the rhythm of our hearts could influence our reaction times, the researchers designed a virtual reality driving game. As the participants progressed on the road, obstacles appeared from time to time. Either during a heartbeat or between two heartbeats.
It then emerged that when the obstacles arose at the same time as the beats of heart , driver reaction times were slower . They were therefore more at risk of an accident. " If you're driving, you're very excited, and your heart is beating hard and fast, you'll have more heart systoles [ventricular contractions], that e that will disrupt your reaction time and your ability to avoid objects ” , can we read in the study.
Research had already highlighted the role of these systoles on our brain's ability to process stimuli. There would be an "inhibitory" effect on pain, for example. If you prick your finger with a needle, this stimuli will actually be perceived as less painful if it coincides with a heartbeat.
Sarah Garfinkel also noted that these systoles could influence our memory capacity. If you are shown a series of words, either in time with your heartbeats or irregularly, you are more likely to forget the words spoken along with your heartbeats.
So our receptors that fire every time our heart contracts, in addition to helping regulate our blood pressure, also seem to affect some of our cognitive functions . " So there seem to be 'better' and 'worse' cardiac phases for sensory processing " , says Michael Gaebler of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany.