The Intelligence of the Heart
Thanks to a recent interview with Rollin McCraty on Shrink Rap Radio (#324 – Exploring HeartMath with Rollin McCraty PhD), I was introduced to the wonderful work of the Institute of HeartMath. These researchers have been studying the interaction between the heart and the brain and how the feelings and intuition of the heart have a large impact on our brain.
The heart has a large and sophisticated neural system that some refer to as the ‘heart brain’. This neural system is intimately connected to heart-rate, blood pressure, hormones, and other neurochemicals in our body. This information is communicated to the brain through several afferent pathways to the medulla in the brain stem. It is not only for basic regulatory control of the autonomic nervous system but cascades up into higher parts of the brain to influence perception, decisions, and other higher cognitive processes. There is a two-way conversation going on between the brain and the heart that is more complex than we had previously thought.
Our heart is monitoring all sorts of information processed through its ‘multi-functioning sensory neurites’, of which there are around 40,000, from the heart itself, the extrinsic cardiac ganglia and the brain via the vagus nerve. Our emotional life is tied up in this heart/head integration and ‘listening to our heart’ is becoming more of a scientific reality than just a turn of phrase.
One of the cornerstones at the Institute of HeartMath is that the heart plays a vital role in our psychophysiological coherence – a healthy balance between our emotional, mental and physiological systems. The messages sent from the heart to the brain have a profound affect on our feelings, and mental processes. The heart rhythms themselves, and in particular the difference between beats, indicate certain states of the heart and have been adopted by HeartMath as an indicator of coherence. To put it in a nutshell, heart rate variability is erratic with negative, stressful emotions and thoughts, whereas positive emotional feelings smooth out hear rate variability. When you are in a state of regular heart rhythm, increased parasympathetic activity, synchronization of physiological systems, and harmony between the heart, nervous, hormonal and immune systems, then you are in physiological coherence. When this state is driven by a positive emotional state, then you have psychophysiological coherence, marked by sustained positive emotion, mental & emotional stability, constructive integration of the cognitive and emotional systems and harmony between the cognitive, emotional and physiological systems.
So one of the fundamental therapeutic processes used by these researchers it to focus on the heart and recall positive emotions like love and thankfulness, generated by the heart. The positive emotional state is communicated up through the vagus nerve to the brain, affecting the rest of the nervous system.
Admittedly I’ve oversimplified heart-induced coherence here for the sake of a brief introduction. I would encourage you to download the PDF “Science of the Heart” on the HeartMath website, that gives a comprehensive introduction to the Institute’s research. I think this is a valuable area of research and a lot of what we ‘know’ intuitively about the heart as therapists, is now being clearly defined and mapped out by these researchers. There are many other findings, like the electromagnetic field generated by the heart, that I believe are important aspects of our physiology that directly impact therapeutic applications by the neuropsychotherapist.