Feedback from the heart: Emotional learning and memory is controlled by cardiac cycle, interoceptive accuracy and personality.
Pfeifer G., Garfinkel SN., Gould van Praag CD., Sahota K., Betka S., Critchley HD.
Feedback processing is critical to trial-and-error learning. Here, we examined whether interoceptive signals concerning the state of cardiovascular arousal influence the processing of reinforcing feedback during the learning of 'emotional' face-name pairs, with subsequent effects on retrieval. Participants (N=29) engaged in a learning task of face-name pairs (fearful, neutral, happy faces). Correct and incorrect learning decisions were reinforced by auditory feedback, which was delivered either at cardiac systole (on the heartbeat, when baroreceptors signal the contraction of the heart to the brain), or at diastole (between heartbeats during baroreceptor quiescence). We discovered a cardiac influence on feedback processing that enhanced the learning of fearful faces in people with heightened interoceptive ability. Individuals with enhanced accuracy on a heartbeat counting task learned fearful face-name pairs better when feedback was given at systole than at diastole. This effect was not present for neutral and happy faces. At retrieval, we also observed related effects of personality: First, individuals scoring higher for extraversion showed poorer retrieval accuracy. These individuals additionally manifested lower resting heart rate and lower state anxiety, suggesting that attenuated levels of cardiovascular arousal in extraverts underlies poorer performance. Second, higher extraversion scores predicted higher emotional intensity ratings of fearful faces reinforced at systole. Third, individuals scoring higher for neuroticism showed higher retrieval confidence for fearful faces reinforced at diastole. Our results show that cardiac signals shape feedback processing to influence learning of fearful faces, an effect underpinned by personality differences linked to psychophysiological arousal.