The Heart in the Mind: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of the Association Between Theory of Mind and Cardiac Vagal Tone

Author: Marta Zammuto1, Cristina Ottaviani2,3, Fiorenzo Laghi1, Antonia Lonigro4
1 Department of Social and Developmetal Psychology, Sapienza University of Rome, Rome, Italy.
2 Department of Psychology, Sapienza University of Rome, Rome, Italy.
3 Functional Neuroimaging Lab, IRCCS Fondazione Santa Lucia, Rome, Italy.
4 Department of Human Sciences, European University of Rome, Rome, Italy.
Conference/Journal: Front Physiol
Date published: 2021 Jul 9
Other: Volume ID: 12 , Pages: 611609 , Special Notes: doi: 10.3389/fphys.2021.611609. , Word Count: 238

Theory of mind (ToM) is the human ability to infer the mental states of others in order to understand their behaviors and plan own actions. In the past decades, accumulating evidence has shown that heart rate variability (HRV), an index of parasympathetic control of the heart, is linked to behavioral regulation, social competence, and social cognition abilities, all implicated-to some extent-in ToM. This study aims to systematically review and meta-analyze the available studies, investigating the relation between ToM and HRV in typically developing people. Six studies were eligible for the meta-analysis, yielding a significant association between HRV and ToM of a small-to-medium effect size (g = 0.44). This result was not influenced by publication bias. Due to the small number of studies eligible for the meta-analysis, it was not possible to test for the effect of categorical moderators. The moderating role of sex and quality of the studies was examined by meta-regression analysis. Moderation analysis did not yield any significant effect; however, at a descriptive level, studies yielding the largest effect size were characterized by the use of high frequency-HRV assessment at rest and the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test to evaluate ToM abilities. The results preliminarily suggest that tonic HRV might be used as an indicator of the ability to understand the content of mind of others.

Keywords: heart rate variability; meta-analysis; parasympathetic; social cognition; systematic review; theory of mind; vagal tone.

PMID: 34305625 PMCID: PMC8299530 DOI: 10.3389/fphys.2021.611609