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Coherence: The Heart Connection to Personal, Social and Global Health
One of the most profound perspectives of 20th Century science is that the universe is wholly and enduringly interconnected and coherent. Complex living systems, which includes human beings, are composed of numerous dynamic, interconnected networks of bio-logical structures and processes. Coherence implies order, structure, harmony, and alignment within and amongst systems—whether in atoms, organisms, social groups, planets, or galaxies. Every whole has a relationship with and is a part of a greater whole, which is again part of something greater. In this context, nothing can be considered as separate, alone, or lacking relationships.
Most people appreciate the feeling of a harmonious state – the feeling of hearts, minds and bodies united in a state of wholeness. When we are in such states we typically feel connected not only to our deepest selves, but also to others, and even to the earth itself. We call this state of internal and external connectedness “coherence.” Can personal coherence be achieved by learning to more consistently self-regulate emotions? How is coherence directly associated with increased intuition and improved health and cognitive functioning? Most importantly, is coherence reflected in physiology and can it be objectively measured? Can we postulate that as increasing numbers of people add coherent energy to the global field, it helps strengthen and stabilize mutually beneficial feedback loops among human beings and with the earth itself?
Concept of Coherence
Coherence always implies correlations, connectedness, consistency, and efficient energy utilization.
Coherence has come to be a term that embraces fields as diverse as quantum physics, cosmology, physiology, and brain and consciousness research. Coherence has several related definitions, all of which are applicable to the study of human physiology, social interactions, and global affairs. The most common dictionary definition is “the quality of being logically integrated, consistent, and intelligible,” as in a coherent statement. A related meaning is the logical, orderly, and aesthetically consistent relationship among parts. Coherence always implies correlations, connectedness, consistency, and efficient energy utilization. We refer to people’s speech or thoughts as coherent if the words fit together well and incoherent if they are uttering meaningless nonsense or presenting ideas that make no sense as a whole. Thus, coherence refers to wholeness and global order, where the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts. In the example of organizing words into a coherent sentence, the meaning and purpose conveyed by the arrangement of the words is greater than the individual meaning of each word. For any system to produce a function, it must have the property of global coherence, and this is also true for our physical, mental, emotional, and social systems.
Coherence also describes the coupling and degree of synchronization between different oscillating systems operating at the same basic frequency. They can become either phase, or frequency, locked, as occurs between photons in a laser. Physicists call this cross-coherence. In physiology, cross-coherence occurs when one or more of the body’s oscillatory systems, such as respiration, blood pressure and heart rhythms, become entrained and operate at the same frequency. Global coherence, however, can be achieved even when the parts are not at the same frequency. In complex, globally coherent systems, such as human beings, there are micro-level systems, molecular machines, protons and electrons, organs and glands each functioning autonomously, doing very different things at different rates yet all working together in a complex, harmoniously coordinated and synchronized manner. If this were not the case, it would be a chaotic free-for-all among the body’s independent systems, rather than a coordinated federation of interdependent systems and functions. Biologist Mae Wan Ho suggested that coherence is the defining quality of living systems and accounts for their most characteristic properties, such as long range order and coordination, rapid and efficient energy transfer, and extreme sensitivity to specific signals.
Many contemporary scientists believe that the underlying state of our physiological processes determines the quality and stability of the feelings and emotion we experience. The feelings we label as “positive” actually reflect body states in which “the regulation of life processes becomes efficient, or even optimal, free-flowing and easy.” Indeed, it appears that synchronized activity underlies conscious experience itself. For the brain and nervous system to function, the neural activity, which encodes information, must be stable and coordinated, and the various centers within the brain must be able to dynamically synchronize their activity in order for information to be smoothly processed and perceived.
Our “coherent” perception of an object in the external world comes from millions of neurons involved in processing sensory information being globally coherent and self-organizing into a global conscious experience. It is estimated that 40% to 65% of all activities in the brain are phase-synchronized at any given time. Coherence, in this context, is a measure of the correlated activity between brain regions that is orchestrated from direct neural connections between the regions, common input from the thalamus, or other neocortical regions. Brain rhythms operate over a wide range of frequencies, yet most of these exhibit various degrees of synchronized activity with the heart, which has a much slower rhythm than the brain. For example, when heart rate increases, the activity and amplitude of the brainwaves also tend to increase. When the heart rhythm is coherent, as described below, there also tends to be an increase in heart-brain synchronization. These are examples of a phase-amplitude relationship between macroscopic physiological rhythms, which reflect the constant intercommunication between different bio-logical rhythms that take place in healthy organisms.
The Coherent Heart Rhythm of Positive Emotions
We have found that positive emotions such as appreciation and compassion are reflected in a heart rhythm pattern that is more coherent
Physiological coherence, the degree of order, harmony, and stability in the various rhythmic activities, signifies a coherent system whose efficient or optimal function is directly related to the ease and flow in life processes. By contrast, an erratic, discordant pattern of activity denotes an incoherent system whose function reflects stress and inefficient utilization of energy in life processes. We have found that positive emotions such as appreciation and compassion are reflected in a heart rhythm pattern that is more coherent (Figure 1), as opposed to negative emotions such as anxiety, anger, and fear. The coherent state has been correlated with a general sense of well-being, and improvements in cognitive, social, and physical performance. Coherence tends to naturally emerge with the activation of heartfelt, positive emotions such as appreciation, compassion, care, and love. This suggests that such feelings increase the coherence and harmony in our energetic systems.
It is important to note that although changes in heart rate often covary with emotions, our research has found that it is the pattern of the heart’s rhythm that is primarily reflective of the emotional state, especially emotions that do not lead to large autonomic nervous system (ANS) activations or withdrawals. These changes in rhythmic patterns can be independent of heart rate; that is, one can have a coherent or incoherent pattern at higher or lower heart rates. Thus, it is the pattern of the rhythm (the ordering of changes in rate over time) rather than the rate (at any point in time) that is most directly related to emotional dynamics and physiological synchronization. Also, the coherent state is fundamentally different from a state of relaxation, which requires only a lowered heart rate and not necessarily a coherent rhythm.
Physiological coherence, also referred to as heart coherence, cardiac coherence, or resonance, is a functional mode measured by heart rate variability (HRV) analysis wherein a person’s heart rhythm pattern becomes more ordered and sine wave–like at a frequency of around 0.1 Hz (10-seconds). The term physiological coherence embraces several related phenomena—auto-coherence, cross-coherence, synchronization, and resonance—all of which are associated with increased order, efficiency, and harmony in the functioning of the body’s systems. When one is in a coherent state, one experiences increased synchronization and resonance in higher-level brain systems and in the activity occurring in the two branches of the ANS, as well as a shift in autonomic balance toward increased parasympathetic activity.
Psychologically, coherence reflects increased emotional and perceptual stability and alignment among the physical, cognitive, and emotional systems (Figure 2). In this regard, coherence and resilience are closely related as each has the quality of being both a process and an outcome as they rely on physiological and psychological processes that create resilient outcomes. In addition, both are states rather than traits that vary over time as demands, circumstances, and level of maturity change. Resilience is related to self-management and efficient utilization of energy resources across four domains: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual (Figure 3). Physical resilience is basically reflected in physical flexibility, endurance, and strength; emotional resilience is reflected in one’s ability to self-regulate the degree of emotional flexibility, positive emotions, and relationships; mental resilience is reflected in our attention span, mental flexibility, an optimistic worldview, and ability to integrate multiple points of view; and spiritual resilience is typically associated with our commitment to core values, intuition, and tolerance of others’ values and beliefs. When we are in a coherent state, the increased physiological efficiency and alignment of the mental and emotional systems accumulates resilience (energy) across all four energetic domains. Having a high level of resilience is important not only for recovering from challenging situations but for preventing unnecessary stress reactions (frustration, impatience, anxiety) that deplete our physical and psychological resources.
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This has been an excerpt from Coherence: The Heart Connection to Personal, Social and Global Health by Rollin McCraty. For more of this article and other great resources for the brain savvy therapist please subscribe here.
Too bad the author did not include a biological-social-psychological, operational definition of “spiritual” in his interesting, thought provoking, and otherwise helpful article, or use some other term. This failure leaves the important question open: By “spiritual”, does McCraty refer to the extremely popular dualist idea of a “non-physical consciousness” or “spirit” supposedly operating in the universe and within human’s heads as most people by far do most of the time? If so, then he needs to resolve the problem of the ghost in the machine: how can this alleged non-physical, spiritual process, or entity, have any effect(s) on our “merely” physical, biological brains and bodies? Perhaps he refers to the spiritual BELIEFS that so many people so strongly hold, “wired” strongly in their neuronal connections? Unfortunately, the reader cannot know.
I have been on Rollins workshops in which he expands on the spiritual definition and how this relates to the universal resonance frequency, which is also the coherent frequency of most human beings (there is currently a neuroscientist here in UK who says we can be coherent at other frequencies not jut 1.0 hz)
I use the Heartmath software with clients and also complete coherence software and I can say quite confidently it does work on producing a coherent HRV in terms of trauma dysregualtion.
I wish we had more research to show how we as practitioners can use more biofeedback methodologies.
Im currently looking to other software packages for client work as technology is my passion (and past life career) so I am very excited the Neuropsychotherapist has featured this.
Thanks so much for your response. Unfortunately, your response does not clarify McCraty’s use of the term “spiritual”. It certainly does not argue for the existence of some kind of universal “non-physical consciousness” or non-physical “spirit” in the universe. On the other hand, it DOES support the existence of a PHYSICAL relationship between various aspects of our known, physical universe and known, physical, biological, neurological functions and processes. The 0.1 Hz electromagnetic waves you and McCraty refer to (per your reference to his workshops) occur as one of the (only) four fundamental PHYSICAL forces in the universe, along with gravity, and the weak and strong nuclear forces. Needless to say, all biofeedback processes occur as physical, biological functions of physical, biological animals, just as all neurological thinking, feeling, and consciousness processes do. Or so it seems pretty clearly to me based on the evidence and inductive reasoning I presently know about.
0.1 hz sorry was rushing typing!
I do hope someone will clarify McCraty’s use of “spiritual” in this article. With this term, does he refer to the extremely popular, Cartesian dualist idea of an alleged non-physical consciousness, force, entity, or spirit inherent within our physical bodies? If so, how does one answer these questions: How can we, as physical, biological animals, ever have any awareness of, knowledge of, or learn about any proposed non-physical consciousness, force, entity, or spirit? Does such knowledge occur through some unknown, and unknowable, magical process? Must we assume that it occurs as a “mystery of faith”, as Catholic priests so often insist? Does it supposedly happen through quantum mechanics principles as some authors have recently claimed? (In this case, one will need to resolve the fundamental problem that, just as macro-scale Newtonian physics principles do not operate at the quantum mechanical sub-atomic level, neither do those sub-atomic quantum mechanics principles apply at the macro-scale Newtonian world we live in.) Certainly, tens of millions of humans have had many age-old fantasies and BELIEFS ABOUT such alleged non-physical, spiritual forces or entities. Meanwhile, we can account for these beliefs, and our consciousness, as functions of real, physical, biological neuronal cells and their communications with each other—all physical, chemical, biological processes—or so it seems to me. (Among many other simple experiments and observations, one need only consume a stiff drink of alcohol to demonstrate this.) Certainly, many unanswered questions remain. In those cases, I do not see how it helps to invoke magic, or faith, which tends very strongly among most people, including some scientists, to stop inquiry. If I have any of this wrong, I hope someone will educate me concerning where and how they resolve these problems and questions, among others, regarding the alleged non-physical ghost that supposedly inhabits our physical, biological bodies.
I believe the concept of spirit isnot ease if someone is a believer (not only the organized believes just the existance super power i,e GOD ) you can simply say Substance by itself did not engage in the various processes that inevitably led to the formation of physical matter, as we know it, but rather, these processes were set in motion by some Original Power or Creative Agency. This Original Power also brought Substance into existence. Similarly, Substance by itself does not originate energy, but rather, and as stated before, it is the distributive medium for the energy which itself originates from the Original Power.
can anyone describes for me what fear anger anxeity emotion thought love satisfaction of course yes but, they arent substantial or tangible we are sure that they affect the physical we , simply by observing some one can say the mood she/he is in even depending on the extent that someone is dwelling in it also progress to the serious health problems.so to sum up spirit is a concept that can be understood through the reflections of human beings just because we can’t realise it doesnt mean it isnot real.