Biofeedback and the molecules of emotion

We are all "designed" to respond to change as if our lives depended upon it.  Often our lives can depend on how we respond.  Change has effects that ripple not just through the structures and processes of an organisation, but down to the level of a single cell in each of our bodies.  Biofeedback techniques should be at the fingertips of every therapist because they can provide a unique window to glimpse how an individual's body is responding to change and whether the stress of responding is proving destructive.  Fatigue and pain are common reasons for people seeking help and behind these generalised symptoms so often we find disturbances in how people respond to stress.

Our chemical nervous system

When we actively feel something, it is truly engaging our whole physiology and not just our thoughts and imagination.  Science tells us that every single cell in our body is influenced by our feelings through our nervous system and the flow of our “molecules of emotion”.  Candice Pert (1999) came up with this term to describe the many hormones within our body that literally act as a chemical nervous system having the power to make us well or make us ill.

In this article, we step back a few years to glimpse how science once viewed human physiology, before we can pin down why this is relevant to us.

Communication begins and ends with a single cell

For decades people thought of the brain and its extension, the central nervous system (CNS), as primarily an electrical communication system.  The CNS seemed to function in a manner not too different from the semiconductor-based electronic computer. 

It was common knowledge that the tiny neurons, or nerve cells, form something resembling a telephone system with miles of intricately criss-crossing wiring.  The dominance of this image in the public mind was due to the fact that science only had convenient tools to see and study the electrical signals.  Only relatively recently did we develop the tools that allow us to observe what we could call the “chemical brain” at work.

Candice Pert coined the term molecules of emotion to describe the flow of chemicals that make up this very special part of us.  Even when we had the evidence, it was hard for science to grasp the idea that we had this second nervous system; one that operated on a much longer time scale and over greater biological distances. 

Especially difficult to accept was that this chemical-based system was indisputably more ancient and far more basic to the human organism than the one we had studied before.  There were peptides such as endorphins, for instance, being made inside cells long before there were dendrites, axons, or even neurons – in fact - before there were brains. 

Since the 1980’s, scientists have been able to talk of information molecules – the basic units of a complex language used by cells throughout the body to communicate across systems such as the endocrine, neurological, gastrointestinal and even the immune system.  Our bodies literally listen to our emotional state and respond accordingly.  In this respect - thoughts are things.

Hundreds of hormones flow through our bodies because of our emotions and then our bodies will ultimately manifest the consequence of those feelings.  Sad feelings actually produce sad bodies.  Depressed feelings produce depressed and ageing bodies and happy feelings produce healthier and youthful bodies.  This is important because it implies what science confirms.  In the developed countries of the world, the three things that kill most people – cancer, heart attacks and stokes, are linked to how we respond to change.

Some stress is essential to performance but when it is too high for the individual problems are inevitable

Some stress is essential to performance but when it is too high for the individual problems are inevitable

The human body is a dynamic, constantly changing system in it’s own right.  A Greek Philosopher said - “You cannot step into the same river twice – new water is always flowing in”.  In fact, science now knows that our bodies are very much like that river.  In every second of your existence you are creating a new body.  Every year you replace 98% of the atoms in your body. You make a new liver every 6 weeks, a new skeleton every 3 months, a new stomach lining every 5 days and a new skin once a month.  Even the very brain cells you think with today weren’t there last year. When faced with stress we are influencing how that change takes place.  The organisational response to change is echoed by a response within the living cells of each member the organisation. 

Did you know that our physiology has hardly evolved since sabre tooth tigers roamed the Earth?  In those days our “fight or flight” physiology equipped us very well for survival and allowed our hormones to naturally achieve balance once a threat was relieved. 

The pace of change

The environment in which we must live and work today changes unceasingly.  A swarm of emails, aggressive or demanding colleagues, sales targets, more plans and pressure to perform, an unreasonable Board of Directors, and so on have replaced the sabre tooth tiger as the source of our stress.

The trouble begins because even though these daily demands may not be consciously perceived by us as a threat, their effects can still be profound.  This is because our bodies just might tend to respond in a way that true balance is rarely achieved.  These stress hormones may feel temporarily energising but when they circulate for too long they promote symptoms such as aggressiveness, impatience, anger and insensitivity. Not exactly a recipe for good health or effective leadership.  

Modern biofeedback systems allow stress profiling to give a complete picture of how an individual truly responds to stress and to relaxation. Using a single signal can be misleading

Modern biofeedback systems allow stress profiling to give a complete picture of how an individual truly responds to stress and to relaxation. Using a single signal can be misleading

Biofeedback today can provide accurate and instantaneous measurements of body functions such as respiration rate, heart rate, muscle tension, skin temperature, electrodermal activity and more - all indicators of the state of balance of our Autonomic Nervous System.  Such broad psychophysiological stress profiling is much more powerful than looking at a single function such as heart rate alone.  

It is common that people complaining of fatigue, pain and stress are given "relaxation exercises" - but actually clinical experience shows that a large percentage of individuals don't benefit from relaxation exercises. When relaxation exercises are given without knowing what is really happening inside the body. Biofeedback can allow a much clearer picture of how the individual responds to both stress and relaxation - via stress profiling.

Impact of stress on organisations

I know plenty of carrot and stick entrepreneurs. They believe and act to gain and keep control.  In some cultures, this is still a persistent view of what it takes to lead; unconsciously built on the fact that stress hormones may actually be addictive.  However, work with such an adrenaline fuelled feeling for too long and business performance, relationships and individual health will suffer.

The good news is that it is not necessary to withdraw from work and life to achieve balance again.  Our body does have the ability to achieve balance in real-time and the key is in recognising when stress is at work for us and in learning techniques to adjust our own state.  Leaders therefore have a particular responsibility and a great opportunity.  A single word can have great impact.  A misplaced gesture or inappropriate tone from a leader can add to the turbulence and the perception of stress of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people.

When leaders learn how to manage their personal state they can be calm and balanced in the most turbulent business conditions.  Such calmness and balance also brings clarity of thought and the opportunity to speak and act clearly and confidently. 

Science tells us that in our times of greatest stress our ability to think clearly is compromised – we are literally disconnected from the ability to be creative, thoughtful, intelligent or reasonable human beings.  When we can learn to be calm and balanced and in the right state others will entrain to our coherent words and actions.

Perlow and Williams (2003) point out that even silence – lack of communication – can set in motion powerful, destructive forces.  Referring to “vicious spirals of silence” the authors point out that often – behind failed products, broken processes, political wrangling and mistaken career decisions, are people who chose to hold their tongues.  Breaking the silence can bring an outpouring of fresh ideas from all levels of an organisation, potentially taking performance to a whole new level.  Leaders need to do better.

On a brighter note, Frans de Waal (2003) author of a book on “Chimpanzee Politics”, also hints that leadership just might have other privileges.  He describes the contests for leadership amongst male chimps in a Dutch zoo.  The contests appear to be mainly about the ability to build a coalition of supporters and to outwit rivals rather than anything to do with size and strength. 

Michael McGuire, a neuroscientist found that high ranking monkeys had high levels of serotonin – one of those natural chemicals associated with feelings of calm, well-being, confidence and general absence of stress.  The high level of serotonin appeared to be the consequence rather that the cause of the attainment of high rank.  When a leader was removed from the group his serotonin levels crashed.  As a new leader emerged, his levels started to climb until they were twice that of the next dominant male.

We aren’t going to stop change but we can learn to notice and influence its effects upon us.  From this balanced foundation, leaders can communicate coherently and effectively.  Balance is an important word.  It implies a position of effortless, stillness from which it is possible to move instantly in any direction. 

A senior manager in the pharmaceutical industry commented on an early draft of this document and told me that one of their key organisational values for leaders was a “sense of urgency”.  But what happens when everything is urgent?  Sometimes the most urgent thing to do sometimes is – nothing.

Leaders are masters of balance.  Sensing the time to act and the time to do nothing as well as understanding that they provide the leverage from which a whole organisation can turn.


  • Frans de Waal (2003) quoted in “Creating Leaders” from The Economist, “Tough at the Top – A survey of corporate leadership”, October 25th 2003, p 8
  • Perlow, L; Williams, S (2003), “Is silence killing your company?”, Harvard Business Review, May 2003, Vol. 81, Issue 5, p 52
  • Pert, C (1999), “Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine”, Simon & Schuster, ISBN: 0684846349