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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.

FIGURE 1 Emotions Are Reflected in Heart Rhythm Patterns.
The left-hand graphs are heart rate tachograms, which show beat-to-beat changes in heart rate. To the right are the heart rate variability (HRV) power spectral density (PSD) plots of the tachograms at left. The examples depicted are typical of the characteristic aspects of the more general patterns observed for each state. Mental focus is characterized by reduced HRV. Activity in all three frequency bands of the HRV power spectrum is present. Anger, an example of Psychophysiological Incoherence, characterized by a lower frequency, more disordered heart rhythm pattern, and increasing mean heart rate. As can be seen in the corresponding power spectrum to the right, the rhythm during anger is primarily in the very low frequency region, which is associated with sympathetic nervous system activity. Relaxation results in a higher-frequency, lower-amplitude rhythm, indicating reduced autonomic outflow. In this case, increased power in the highfrequency region of the power spectrum is observed, reflecting increased parasympathetic activity (the relaxation response). Psychophysiological coherence, which is associated with sustained positive emotions (in this example, appreciation), results in a highly ordered, sine wave–like heart rhythm pattern. As can be seen in the corresponding power spectrum, this psychophysiological mode is associated with a large, narrow peak in the low frequency region, centered around 0.1 Hz. Note the scale difference in the amplitude of the spectral peak during the coherence mode. This indicates system-wide resonance, increased synchronization between the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the nervous system, and entrainment between the heart rhythm pattern, respiration, and blood pressure rhythms. The coherence mode is also associated with increased parasympathetic activity, thus encompassing a key element of the relaxation response, yet it is physiologically distinct from relaxation because the system is oscillating at its resonant frequency, and there is increased harmony and synchronization in nervous system and heart-brain dynamics.

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.

FIGURE 2 Entrainment
The top graphs show an individual’s heart rate variability, pulse transit time, and respiration rhythms over a 10-minute period. At the 300-second mark, the individual used the freeze-frame positive emotion refocusing technique, causing these three systems to come into entrainment. The bottom graphs show the frequency spectra of the same data on each side of the dotted line in the center of the top graph. Notice the graphs on the right show that all three systems have entrained to the same frequency.


FIGURE 3 Dimensions of Resilience


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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.


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