The brain in your heart
If your partner said “I love you with all my brain” you would look at them strangely. it wouldn't have quite the same ring of authenticity to it as if he or she said “I love you with all my heart”.
For centuries the heart has been considered as the source of emotion, courage and even wisdom but science is only just getting to grips with the complexity of this influence and what we might do with the knowledge.
Ancient civilisations saw the intellect and emotion, or “thinking” and “feeling”, as quite separate and often antagonistic functions. In Plato’s view, emotions were like wild horses to be reined in by the intellect. Even in more recent times many of us were brought up to have a “stiff upper lip” and led to believe that to show any emotion was weakness. It is clear that the link between the heart and emotion was known and embedded in our language and culture long before science had any explanation for this.
Although there is still much to learn, we now recognise that high performers in athletics, business, the arts - in fact high performers of all kinds - can use biofeedback to help manage the link between emotions and performance. Biofeedback concepts and technology allow us to develop a personal awareness and ability to influence how we respond to situations that generate strong emotions. It might be the stress of a real-time situation or even the stress of anticipation that knocks us off balance.
When we are stressed and the sympathetic nervous system is powered up we are literally disconnected from the ability to think clearly. The quote above from Richard Bandler, the co-founder of Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) states a very deep truth that our emotions can affect the quality of our decisions and that better emotions will lead to better decisions.
Sounds useful to us -
So we can either learn to "manhandle" our emotions into the desired state (challenging for many of us who seem powerless to do this when situations so often shape how we feel) or we can use body and mind together to learn a new way of finding better balance using the power intrinsic in the way the heart works.
In this short article we look at just one aspect of the heart’s function - heart rate variability (HRV) that gives us some leverage to improve our performance under pressure. Let’s start by looking at what the heart does.
What the heart does
Science now recognises that far from being a simple pump, the heart both communicates with and influences the brain via the nervous system, hormonal system and other pathways. The heart literally seems to act as if it has a mind of its own. It affects our creativity, mental clarity, emotional balance and effectiveness. So how does this happen?
We have long known that changes in one’s emotions are accompanied by changes in heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, digestion and more. It was recognised that there is a part of our autonomic nervous system (sympathetic part) that is mobilised when we are aroused - we are directly energised to “fight or flight”. In our calm moments, another part of our nervous system (parasympathetic part) damps everything down.
A reasonable assumption would be that the brain is in control of the sympathetic and parasympathetic parts of the nervous system. However, is was discovered that this only partially matches the true behaviour of our physiology. In fact it was found that there was a neural pathway so that input from the heart to the brain could either inhibit or facilitate the brain’s electrical activity via the vagus nerve.
In the 1960’s and 70’s early psychophysiological researchers observed that the heart and brain communicate in ways that significantly affect how we perceive and react to events. The discipline of neurocardiology is still exploring the “nervous system within the heart” and to some extent the relationship between emotions and their effect on the destabilisation of the heart continues to be a mystery - but this doesn’t mean we cant take advantage of what we do know.
In 1991 Dr JA Armour described the concept of a functional “heart brain” and in his book gives an overview of the heart’s intrinsic nervous system and the role of both the central and peripheral autonomic neurons in the regulation of cardiac function.
In this model, hormonal, chemical, rate and pressure information are translated into neurological impulses and sent from the heart to the brain through several afferent pathways (flowing toward the brain). It is also via these nerve pathways that pain signals and other “feeling” sensations are sent to the brain. The afferent nerve pathways pathways enter the brain in the area of the medulla. The signals have a regulatory role over many of the ANS signals that flow from the brain to the heart, blood vessels and other organs and glands. These signals also influence the higher centres of the brain. Another part of the heart-brain communication system (which is slower acting) relates to hormones that are produced and released by the heart which we will describe in a future article.
Although our understanding of this is not perfect, the bottom line is that the heart has its own intrinsic nervous system that can operate and process information independent from the brain or nervous system.
Biofeedback of HRV
Although the overall system is complex there is still much we can still do to influence our performance and our health by focusing biofeedback methodology on an aspect of heart function - Herat Rate Variability.
The term RSA (Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia) predates the term HRV, and referred to the rise and fall of heart rate synchronised with each breath (faster on the inhale, slower on the exhale). The magnitude of this systematic variability seems to reflect a healthy alternation between the two autonomic influences on the heart beat: sympathetic and parasympathetic.
Lack of this variation reflects an imbalance between the two aspects of the ANS, most likely deficient parasympathetic influence, and in the long term can be a sign of poor cardiovascular health. By calming one’s emotional state and by choosing to breathe slower and in a more regular fashion, the HRV can be increased, at least temporarily.
The biofeedback setup for HRV involves monitoring either heart rate alone or heart rate plus respiration. Heart rate may be detected with BVP sensors on the finger, or by ECG measurement by the EXG sensor.
Most commonly, a trace reflecting cyclic variations in heart rate is displayed in the BioTrace software. The mean heart rate per minute is not important; the variability of heart rate is the variable of interest. The client can directly observe the trace (or a derived graphic display) and uses it as feedback for regulating the breath and/or the emotional state. The heart beat variability is maximised at a particular and person specific “resonant frequency” (breathing rate per minute). This rate, usually around six per minute, can be determined for each individual by observation and experimentation.
The time to achieve an improved HRV while assisted by biofeedback might average four to ten sessions. Learning time varies as with any biofeedback procedure. Generalisation to the everyday environment, away from the biofeedback monitoring, takes longer than achieving success within the biofeedback context. Practicing with HRV biofeedback provides a model for real-life self-regulation; the goal is to develop awareness of one’s breathing and of one’s emotional state, both of which interact and influence the autonomic balance. This balance in turn has been found helpful for several disorders involving chronic maladjustment of the autonomic nervous system.