Jeanne Denney
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Biofeedback and Heartmath

The following is an excerpt from my book covering the biofeedback method, Heartmath that has been developed by the Institute of Heartmath (IHM) in California. IHM has done fascinating research on the prominent role of the heart in regulation of mind and body, and developed tools for practitioners and individuals to use for self-regulation and stress reduction. For more information and research you can also check out their website: http://www.heartmath.org/

Biofeedback, HeartMath and Ways of Relating without Talking

In the field of mind-body studies, the phenomenon of biofeedback has been a great contributor in substantiating esoteric claims. It has established the connection between physiological and psychological processes, and provided tools for self-regulation of consciousness states. Using technological equipment for measurement of physiological responses, such as brain waves, heart rate, blood pressure, etc., biofeedback tools allow the consciousness of a patient to participate in the remedy of physiological and psychological disorders. This work has served to establish the mind-body connection in ways that are admissible to the concrete and scientifically oriented modern mind. Subtle energy and biofeedback pioneers Elmer and Alyce Green propose the following principle of human functioning and demonstrated it in their work:

Every change in the physiological state is accompanied by an appropriate change in the mental-emotional state, conscious or unconscious, and, conversely, every change in the mental-emotional state, conscious or unconscious, is accompanied by an appropriate change in the physiological state. (Green, 1977, p.58)

Their work on the connection between emotional content and physical responses has been developed in the work of many others, among them the Institute of HeartMath (IHM) whose research is used to support this study. A description of their work and the research that supports this study is outlined below.

Overview of the Institute of HeartMath Research

Since 1991 The Institute of HeartMath has been researching heart-brain interactions and the physiology of emotion, learning and performance using biofeedback technology (http://www.heartmath.org/about-ihm.html). The institute has also developed tools for monitoring these factors, along with methods for improving them. Software technology from one of these, a biofeedback program called Freeze-Framer, was used to measure heart rate variability (HRV) coherence in this study. Freeze-Framer is described in more detail in the section on Quantitative Measurement below (see Chapter 3).

Coherence and Entrainment

A number of HeartMath research papers have been reviewed to date to substantiate the application of their work to this study, as well as The HeartMath Solution, a book by Institute founder Doc Childre and Howard Martin (1999). The most important principles established by HeartMath from the point of view of this study are:

1. There is an energetic interaction between the heart and the brain that cannot be explained by physiological mechanisms alone (McCraty, 2003, p.1).

2. The heart produces effects on many systems of the body and mind through nervous system interactions, electro-magnetic waves, hormonal secretions and blood pressure waves and that these influences have a primary role in emotional experience. “… the low-frequency oscillations generated by the heart and body in the form of afferent neural, hormonal, and electrical patterns are the carriers of emotional information” (McCraty, 2003, p.1).

3. Patterns of the heart rhythm are strongly associated with changes in autonomic activity. Specifically, when a person is experiencing emotions in which there is less “synchronization in the reciprocal and between the parasympathetic and sympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS)”, such as in fear, anger or frustration, heart rate variability becomes erratic and disordered (McCraty, 2003, p. 3). This pattern is called incoherence. When these disordered patterns are a result of rapid changes in beat-to-beat heart rate, they are caused by sudden changes in Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) activity. I am calling this a PNS mediated response. In contrast, the opposite conditions occur when there is good synchronization, a condition called coherence. This state is associated with positive emotions such as love, compassion, or appreciation. In this state there is also synchronization between heart rate variability patterns, respiratory and blood pressure rhythms and very low brain waves, as well as the activity of other organ systems, a phenomenon termed cross-coherence or entrainment. Therefore, an analysis of HRV has the potential of offering a good indication of heart/brain synchronization, autonomic nervous system dynamics and emotional states (McCraty, 2003, p.3).

4. The electromagnetic field generated by the heart of one person can be detected in another person in both physical contact and non-contact experiments. While effects on EEG signals are strongest when people are in contact, they are also evident when in proximity (McCraty, 2003 and 1998).

5. When in a coherent state one’s own brain waves can synchronize another person’s ECG at distances up to five feet. (McCraty, 2003) Further, heart rhythms can sometimes produce the effect of entraining with other people’s heart rhythms in some circumstances, such as spouses who live and sleep together or in coworkers who work in proximity. According to IHM, the other key factor in whether entrainment of this nature occurs seems to be coherence of the receiver. When a receiver is incoherent, IHM material shows less capacity to be influenced by another’s rhythm (McCraty, 2003).

6. The more love and care a person has received in their life, or are accustomed to receiving, the more easily they receive cardiac signals from another. (Study by Schwartz referenced in McCraty, 2003).

In sum, research from the Institute of HeartMath has shown a connection between HRV and emotional states such as frustration, joy, appreciation and gratitude. This research has also shown the correlation between the HRV of one subject and another in some circumstances, a phenomenon called entrainment. Through the use of this tool it is hoped that this investigation may begin to assess possible influence between the consciousness state of someone sitting with comatose patients and that of the patients themselves. Group influence on HRV.

In addition to experiments between two individuals, the IHM has explored the effect of group energy dynamics in its work with corporations, schools and hospitals. Most of this work appears to have been done with the intention of increasing individual performance, productivity and overall job satisfaction. However, the implications of HeartMath materials are that there may be discernable effects produced by the phenomenon of group coherence on individuals, or that somehow raising the coherence of individuals has an effect on group energy dynamics. This work has been intimated in discussions of “societal coherence” in The HeartMath Solution (Childre and Martin, 1999).

The Parasympathetic and Sympathetic Nervous Systems

Research of the HeartMath Institute on the interaction of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) indicates that the phenomenon of coherence is produced by the inter-relationship of these two systems. The intrinsic heart rate generated by the sinoatrial node is reported to be between 100 to 120 bpm in the absence of neural or hormonal influence. (McCraty and Atkinson, p. 6). Changes in this heart rate are produced by the PNS or the SNS, with PNS activity acting to protect the heart by lowering HR and SNS acting to speed up the HR.

In a healthy individual, the HR estimated at any given time represents the net effect of the parasympathetic (vagus) nerves, which slow HR, and the sympathetic nerves, which accelerate it. (p. 6)

Because the actions of the two nervous systems have different response times, it is possible to differentiate and analyze the level of influence of each branch of the nervous system on the HR. Vagal (PNS) stimulation results in an almost immediate change in HR, within one or two heartbeats, and quickly returns to its previous level. Sudden increases or decreases in HR can also be brought about by a sudden inhibition or increase in vagal activity. “Thus, any sudden changes in HR are parasympathetically mediated.” (McCraty and Atkinson, p. 6) On the other hand, the heart response to a change in sympathetic activity is slower, and acts to progressively increase the HR over a period of 5 to 25 seconds. Added to the effects of blood pressure regulation systems, the integration of the PNS and the SNS produce most of the beat-to-beat changes in HR (p. 7). These changes can be observed in the Freeze-Framer tachogram.

PNS-mediated responses, sometimes called incoherence, can be a result of many things. In an ordinary population it is often a result of emotions producing anxiety or stress. In a group of people with many health issues or near death, the PNS can be unstable and activated for other reasons (R. McCraty, personal communication, April 24, 2006).

The body of research developed by the Institute of HeartMath appears to provide a basis for exploration of somatic and emotional influence between individuals in proximity. The implication of the IHM writings is that coherence is a useful parameter of measurement of ideal physiological and emotional states. Further that there may be a meaningful relationship between one person’s coherence and the psycho-physical responses of another in their proximity. An additional suggestion of the writings developed by IHM is that energetic information, such as gratitude, appreciation, love and compassion, is more easily transferred in the state of coherence than other states.

Through their research, the Institute of HeartMath has produced evidence of energy exchange and influence between people in relationship, a principle that is avowed in many healing modalities, but one that has been largely rejected by western science because of lack of plausible mechanisms. This principle may be at the heart of understanding non-verbal communications, the experience of esoteric practitioners and people at the boundary of life.

References:

Green, E. & Green, A. (1977). Beyond biofeedback. New York: Delta data for 2003. In National Vital Statistics Reports, 53(15), Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.

McCraty, R. and Atkinson, M. (1996). Autonomic assessment report: A comprehensive heart rate variability analysis. HeartMath Research Center, Institute of HeartMath, Publication No. 96-028. Boulder Creek, CA.

McCraty, R. (2003). The energetic heart: Bioelectrical interactions within and between people. (The Heartmath Research Center) e-book retrieved Feb. 28, 2005 from the Institute of Heartmath Web site: http://www/heartmath.org.

McCraty,R., Atkinson, M., Tomasino, D., Tiller, W. (1998) The electricity of touch: Detection and measurement of cardiac energy exchange between people. In K.H. Pribram (Ed.), Brain and values: Is a biological science of values possible (pp. 359-379). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Asociates.