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  • Heart Sense

    Reflections on Physiology and Embodiment


    How can the very creation, rendering, and experiencing of biological data be distinctly feminist? For example, how can it start from women’s lives in all our plurality and complexity, break down binaries such as objectivity/subjectivity and science/feminism, and contribute to a more nuanced understanding of our bodies – a kind of knowing that is in and of the world?

    Heart rate data may seem like a counterintuitive choice as an entry point into these questions. The monitored heart rate can be very mechanistic and even disciplinary: the persistent mechanical beeping during surgery (Kneebone, 2017), the fetal heartbeat of anti-choice politics (Edgar, 2017), monitors that can spur excessive intervention in childbirth (Cartwright, 1998), and even fitness monitors that incite increased intensity in exercise (Pirkko & Pringle, 2006: 59). Heart rate can be a site of plural layers of “control by quantification” (Browne, 2015: 9). Yet the heart remains ambiguous and undisciplined. In times of emotional intensity, a racing heart rate can feel very much out of control. At the same time, we can feel our own heartbeat, and that of others with whom we are intimate. In this manner, heart rate offers an accessible route into engaging with our bodies. This mundaneness and accessibility, in turn, makes it less likely that data about the heart could mechanize subjectivity the way that data about, say, the brain might. The heart’s pace is at once most intimate and personal, while simultaneously deeply connected to others and the outside world. Creatively engaged, heart rate can offer an intriguing point of departure for feminist engagement with the entangled nature of data, matter, and meaning both in theory and practice.

    Principal Investigators: Dr. Anne Pollock, Dr. Nassim JafariNaimi, and Dr. Lewis Wheaton.

    Each heart visualizations display a person's physiological response to watching an emotionally-engaging video. Different physiological characteristics (heart rate, galvanic skin response, and breathing patterns) were used as variables to create a flower-like visualization.


    By creating, visualizing, and encouraging reflection on circumscribed datasets, we strive to approach physiological data for its capacity to inspire an alternative epistemological and experiential engagement from either standard scientific visualization or the quantified self. Ours is an object oriented feminist approach: "in light of a specific and particiular materiality to hand, what if we see the world like this?" (Pollock, 2015).

    This project is aligned with recent calls for feminist data visualization (D'Ignazio and Klein, 2016), even as its starting point is different - engaging not only with representation, but also with creation and experience of data.

    Our initial focus was to try and abstractly visualize the way a human empathizes with others’ stories and experiences. We hoped for insights on whether the person would ‘feel’ the same emotions as the person telling the story. We also were curious as to whether people are conscious of their true responses to such human interactions. For our research, we began exploring existing projects and installations that have tried to use human physiological measures as input for artistic pieces. We came across various art installations that visualized human responses to music or other medium through light, color, and sound.

    Correlating the changes in physiological patterns to emotion is one of the main challenges we faced. For example, the heart may race because of happiness or fear. Distinguishing the happiness from fear would require more expertise in the subject.


    We started off by brainstorming different physiological inputs that would contribute to making the visualizations. We also had to figure out what the visualization would look like and the physical environment the person would be in.

    Proposed environment with the participant sitting in a partially enclosed area, while others can see an abstraction of their ’emotions’ on a timeline outside

    Different visualization ideas


    We have presented this work at:

    Society for Social Studies of Science Boston - August 2017
    Final Annual Comscicon Atlanta - March 2018

    Shruti Dalvi

    Regan Lawson
    Applied Physiology, PhD

    Tae Eun Kim

    Udaya Lakshmi

    Heart Feminism

    Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience 1.1(September 2015): 30pp.