The Science of HeartMath
HeartMath products, tools and techniques are based on over 25 years of scientific research conducted at the HeartMath Institute on the psychophysiology of stress, emotions, and the interactions between the heart and brain. There are over 300 peer-reviewed or independent studies utilizing HeartMath techniques or technologies to achieve beneficial outcomes that have been published.
HeartMath technology is an innovative approach to improving emotional wellbeing. Learn to change your heart rhythm pattern to create physiological coherence; a scientifically measurable state characterized by increased order and harmony in our mind, emotions and body.
The Heart–Brain Connection
Most of us have been taught in school that the heart is constantly responding to “orders” sent by the brain in the form of neural signals. However, it is not as commonly known that the heart actually sends more signals to the brain than the brain sends to the heart! Moreover, these heart signals have a significant effect on brain function – influencing emotional processing as well as higher cognitive faculties such as attention, perception, memory, and problem-solving. In other words, not only does the heart respond to the brain, but the brain continuously responds to the heart.
The effect of heart activity on brain function has been researched extensively over about the past 40 years. Earlier research mainly examined the effects of heart activity occurring on a very short time scale – over several consecutive heartbeats at maximum. Scientists at the HeartMath Institute have extended this body of scientific research by looking at how larger-scale patterns of heart activity affect the brain’s functioning.
HeartMath research has demonstrated that different patterns of heart activity (which accompany different emotional states) have distinct effects on cognitive and emotional function. During stress and negative emotions, when the heart rhythm pattern is erratic and disordered, the corresponding pattern of neural signals traveling from the heart to the brain inhibits higher cognitive functions. This limits our ability to think clearly, remember, learn, reason, and make effective decisions. (This helps explain why we may often act impulsively and unwisely when we’re under stress.) The heart’s input to the brain during stressful or negative emotions also has a profound effect on the brain’s emotional processes—actually serving to reinforce the emotional experience of stress.
In contrast, the more ordered and stable pattern of the heart’s input to the brain during positive emotional states has the opposite effect – it facilitates cognitive function and reinforces positive feelings and emotional stability. This means that learning to generate increased heart rhythm coherence, by sustaining positive emotions, not only benefits the entire body, but also profoundly affects how we perceive, think, feel, and perform.
Your Heart’s Changing Rhythm
The heart at rest was once thought to operate much like a metronome, faithfully beating out a regular, steady rhythm. Scientists and physicians now know, however, that this is far from the case. Rather than being monotonously regular, the rhythm of a healthy heart-even under resting conditions – is actually surprisingly irregular, with the time interval between consecutive heartbeats constantly changing. This naturally occurring beat-to-beat variation in heart rate is called heart rate variability (HRV).
Coherence: A State of Optimal Function
The HeartMath Institute’s research has shown that generating sustained positive emotions facilitates a body-wide shift to a specific, scientifically measurable state. This state is termed psychophysiological coherence, because it is characterized by increased order and harmony in both our psychological (mental and emotional) and physiological (bodily) processes. Psychophysiological coherence is state of optimal function. Research shows that when we activate this state, our physiological systems function more efficiently, we experience greater emotional stability, and we also have increased mental clarity and improved cognitive function. Simply stated, our body and brain work better, we feel better, and we perform better.
Coherence Is Not Relaxation
An important point is that the state of coherence is both psychologically and physiologically distinct from the state achieved through most techniques for relaxation. At the physiological level, relaxation is characterized by an overall reduction in autonomic outflow (resulting in lower HRV) and a shift in ANS balance towards increased parasympathetic activity. Coherence is also associated with a relative increase in parasympathetic activity, thus encompassing a key element of the relaxation response, but is physiologically distinct from relaxation in that the system oscillates at its natural resonant frequency and there is increased harmony and synchronization in nervous system and heart–brain dynamics. This important difference between the two states is reflected most clearly in their respective HRV power spectra (see figure and explanation below). Furthermore, unlike relaxation, the coherence state does not necessarily involve a lowering of heart rate, or a change in the amount of HRV, but rather is primarily marked by a change in the heart rhythm pattern.
The Role of Breathing
Another important distinction involves understanding the role of breathing in the generation of coherence and its relationship to the techniques of the HeartMath System. Because breathing patterns modulate the heart’s rhythm, it is possible to generate a coherent heart rhythm simply by breathing slowly and regularly at a 10-second rhythm (5 seconds on the in-breath and 5 seconds on the out-breath). hile HeartMath techniques incorporate a breathing element, paced breathing is not their primary focus and they should therefore not be thought of simply as breathing exercises. The main difference between the HeartMath tools and most commonly practiced breathing techniques is the HeartMath tools’ focus on the intentional generation of a heartfelt positive emotional state. This emotional shift is a key element of the techniques’ effectiveness.