Heart Math

The work of the HeartMath Institute is an interesting blend of science, mathematics and philosophy, highlighting the relationship between psychological wellbeing and physical health and attempting to give a scientific underpinning to variety of spiritual practices and meditation techniques.

This page tries to summarise this paper by the HeartMath institute.

The central theme is that of ‘coherence’. Coherent heart rhythms are associated with synchronised physiological processes, stable emotional states, increased cognitive ability and improved health and wellbeing.

Certain patterns of heart activity are said to be beneficial for physical and psychological health and even athletic performance. These can be achieved by training methods using feedback techniques and equipment designed by the institute.

Another theme is that the electric field produced by the human heart is highly structured and contains sufficient power and information to have a meaningful effect on other people, leading inevitably to the concept of a ‘collective consciousness’.

These ideas are becoming increasingly popular amongst healing groups and meditation circles.

From the paper: “Numerous studies have since shown that heart coherence is an optimal physiological state associated with increased cognitive function, self-regulatory capacity, emotional stability and resilience.”

“The heart is, in fact, a highly complex information-processing centre with its own functional brain, commonly called the ‘heart brain’, that communicates with and influences the cranial brain via the nervous system, hormonal system and other pathways.”

Chapter 1: Heart-Brain Communication

The brain sends signals to the heart for sure but also the heart sends signals to the brain.
In fact the heart sends more information to the brain than the brain sends to the heart.

The heart communicates with the brain and body in four ways that significantly affect functionality:

  • Neurological (nervous system)
  • Biochemical (hormones)
  • Biophysical (pulse waves)
  • Energetic (electromagnetic fields)

The signals represent complex information that the brain seems to ‘understand’ and ‘obey’.

The heart-brain’s neural circuitry gives it both short-term and long-term memory functions and its own type of logic that enables it to act independently of the cranial brain to learn, remember, make decisions and even feel and sense.

The heart as a hormonal gland

The heart secretes various neurotransmitters Atrial peptide, norepinephrine, epinephrine, dopamine, oxytocin..

Atrial peptide inhibits the release of stress hormones and is thought to influence mood and behaviour.

Oxytocin also has been shown to be involved in cognition, tolerance, trust and friendship and the establishment of enduring pair-bonds. Remarkably, concentrations of oxytocin produced in the heart are in the same range as those produced in the brain.

Chapter 2: Resilience, stress and emotions.

Psychological stress is a strong predictor of many disease processes including cancer, neurological disorders and heart disease. (Many studies quoted).
This chapter embarks on one of the main themes of the paper by trying to establish links between measurable, physical processes and non-measurable phenomena such as thoughts, emotions and stress.

The paper mentions four domains of resilience, one physical and the others non-physical.

The term ‘coherence’ is introduced (although not defined) as an attempt to unite the different domains.

  • Physical resilience – physical flexibility, endurance and strength
  • Emotional resilience – ability to self regulate and maintain relationships
  • Mental resilience – ability to sustain attention and integrate multiple points of view
  • Spiritual resilience – commitment to core values whilst tolerating the beliefs of others

“We are coming to understand health not as the absence of disease, but rather as the process by which individuals maintain their sense of coherence (i.e. sense that life is comprehensible, manageable, and meaningful) and ability to function in the face of changes in themselves and their relationships with their environment”

Since the emotions affect the intellect more than the other way around it is obvious that the road to health and wellbeing will depend upon emotional regulation, and since the heart has a large input into the brain from various pathways it is necessary to understand the nature of this input and to try to characterise ‘good’ heart input from ‘bad’.

“Our research indicates that the key to the successful integration of the mind and emotions lies in increasing one’s emotional self-awareness and the coherence of, or harmonious function and interaction among, the neural systems that underlie cognitive and emotional experience”

The paper will argue that physical coherence of the heartbeat is correlated with mental, emotional and spiritual coherence and moreover, that these can be trained and synchronised via feedback mechanisms.

Chapter 3: Heart Rate Variability: An indicator of self-regulatory capacity, autonomic function and health.

Heart rate variability (HRV) is one of the key concepts in HeartMath theory. The heart does not beat at a completely regular rhythm but has minor variations from beat to beat, i.e. the time between beats varies continuously.

Here the red line is the heart beat and the blue line is the heart rate.

The heart rate varies considerably even when not exercising and this variation contains ‘information’ that can be used as an indicator of physical and mental health.

Heart Rate Variability arises from multiple signals from all around the body and so can be taken as a general indicator of general regulatory synchrony and physiological adaptability.

An optimal level of HRV results in healthy function and an inherent self-regulatory capacity, adaptability, and resilience. While too much instability, such as arrhythmias or nervous
system chaos is detrimental to functioning and energy utilization, too little variation indicates age-related system depletion, chronic stress, pathology or inadequate functioning in various levels of self-regulatory control systems

Changes in HRV patterns have been an accurate pre-symptomatic predictor of:

  • Foetal distress (even before the actual heart rate has risen)
  • Autonomic neuropathy in diabetic patients
  • Death from post myocardial infarction
  • All cause mortality

A constant theme is that thoughts and emotions that are perceived to be ‘negative’ correspond to ‘disordered’ physical states. This is important as there is now the possibility of measuring the amount of disorder in a system and using this as an indicator of a detrimental psychological state.

  • Thoughts and subtle emotions influence activity in the Autonomic Nervous System
  • The ANS interacts with our digestive, cardiovascular, immune and hormonal systems
  • Negative emotions create ‘disorder’ in the brain’s regulatory systems and ANS
  • Feelings such as appreciation create increased ‘order’ in the regulatory systems resulting in improved hormonal and immune system function and even enhanced cognitive function

A diagram and several pages of text are given to describe a “detailed hierarchy of cardiac control structures among
the cortex, amygdala and other subcortical structures,
all of which can modify cardiovascular-related neurons
in the lower levels of the neuraxis”

Measuring heart rate

We see on the top line a simple recording of heart rate and we can see that it varies continuously over a 24 hour period.

This concept is easy to understand but does not help quantify the variability (HRV) and gives no useful insights into any underlying patterns that may exist.

The line though, can be decomposed into three separate frequencies, here labelled Low, Very Low and High Frequency. It turns out that each of these sub-frequencies is produced by a separate physical instrument, has its own distinctive role in health and dysfunction is associated with disease processes specific to that frequency.

Power spectral analysis

Charts like this showing the relative contributions of each of the sub-frequencies are a better representation of this data.

High frequency band – the ‘respiratory’ band

  • Rhythms with periods from 2.5 seconds to 7 seconds
  • Reflects parasympathetic or vagal activity
  • Related to respiratory sinus arrhythmia
  • Can be strengthened by slow deep breathing
  • Weakness is associated with stress panic and anxiety

Low frequency band – the ‘baroreceptor’ range

  • Rhythms with periods from 7 seconds to 25 seconds
  • Reflects baroreflex activity – baroreceptors in the heart chambers send information back to the heart muscles, creating a feedback loop with a resonant frequency of about 0.1 Hz, i.e. a 10 second rhythm

Very low frequency band

  • Rhythms from 25 seconds to 300 seconds
  • This rhythm is thought to be generated by the heart itself
  • Stronger associations with all cause mortality than the other bands
  • Low VLF power associated with arrhythmic death and PTSD
  • Low VLF power associated with low testosterone and high inflammation
  • Circadian rhythms, core body temperature and metabolism all contribute to this band

Chapter 4: Coherence.

“Coherence always implies correlations, connectedness, consistency and efficient energy utilisation. Thus, coherence refers to wholeness and global order, where the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts.”

The concept of ‘coherence’ with respect to pure wave forms is easy to understand from the charts right.

Coherent waveforms ‘look’ harmonious and ordered whereas decoherent forms look chaotic and unstable.

The assertion of the paper is that coherent waveforms reflect a stable organisation of the body’s regulatory systems and lead to optimal health and optimal physical performance.
Moreover, this optimal organisation is reflected in, responsible for and influenced by an optimal emotional state, whereas incoherent, disorganised waveforms are associated with confused, unstable emotional states and ultimately, poor health.

When functioning in a coherent mode, the heart pulls
other biological oscillators into synchronization with
its rhythms, thus leading to entrainment of these
systems. Entrainment is an example of a
physiological state in which there is increased coherence between multiple oscillating systems and also
within each system.”

Given that waveforms are amenable to mathematical analysis we can now formulate a decent definition of coherence in terms of wave patterns and use this as a metric for coherence in the domain of health and wellbeing:

A coherent heart rhythm is defined as a relatively harmonic, sine wavelike signal with a very narrow, high-amplitude peak in the low frequency region of the HRV power spectrum with no major peaks in the very-low-frequency or high-frequency regions.

Below we see what happens to the HRV, Pulse Transit Time and Respiration Rate over a 10 minute period. At the halfway mark, the subject applied the HeartMath’s freeze frame technique and we can see that all three rhythms become ‘entrained’ or synchronised to the same basic frequency.

Physiological Coherence is characterised by

  • High heart-rhythm coherence (sinus-like wave)
  • Increased parasympathetic activity
  • Increased synchronisation between physiological systems
  • Efficient and harmonious functioning of the cardiovascular, nervous hormonal and ‘immune’ systems

Chapter 5: Establishing a new baseline

Now we have a way of characterising coherence and techniques to achieve it, the task is to develop a long-term stable baseline ‘state’ to which the body will always return after some perturbation of stress or temporary emotional outburst.

Many people live in a permanently decoherent state by means of habit and reinforced by the environmental triggers to which they have become accustomed; they have never known any different and therefore do not perceive anything wrong until it is too late.

They will wander from state to state, from crisis to ‘high’ to chemical intoxication and back to crisis. Without ever knowing true coherence they do not realise that there is something else to aim for and would not recognise it as something valuable even if they happened upon it by accident.

The strategy designed by the institute involves practicing various techniques to alter the HRV, whilst providing feedback on a monitor to allow subjects to achieve, recognise and maintain an ideal state.

Regular practice allows a permanent restructuring of the psycho-physical order.

Emotional regulation is the way to good health:

“Failures of self-regulation are central to the vast majority of health and social problems that plague modern societies. The most important strength that the majority of people need to build is the capacity to self regulate their emotions, attitudes and behaviours.”

After regular training in HRV improvement:

  • Highschool students showed measurably more coherent HRV and also improved emotional regulation and along with it, improved behaviour and better test scores.
  • Students with ADHD showed improvements in short and long term memory and ability to focus, leading to beneficial behavioural changes.
  • Fighter pilots showed improved performance and lower levels of frustration.
  • Soldiers with PTSD showed better emotional regulation.
  • A study of police officers showed reductions in systolic and diastolic BP, total cholesterol, fasting glucose, overall stress, anger, fatigue and hostility.