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The Heart of Neurofeedback

Posted Sep 13 2008 1:14am
What does the heart have to do with neurofeedback?

When most people understand the term "neuro", they think neurologist, neurology, neurosurgery...i.e., related to the nervous system and especially the brain and spinal cord (otherwise known as the central nervous system).

What does the heart have to do with nervous systems??

Good question! Let me ask you a question before I answer that.

What do you think makes your heart beat?

If you said your brain does, you're in good company since that's what most people say.

But you would be wrong.

Your heart has its own nervous system with a built-in pacemaker. Even if we could disconnect your heart and brain, your heart would keep on pumping.

But that's just the beginning.

Because your heart is not just a "pump", speeding blood through your body.

Your heart is a highly complex, self-organized information-processing centre that is communicating with and influencing the brain (in your head) by way of other parts of the nervous and hormonal system.

In fact, the heart's brain is so complex that it often acts independently of (or in parallel with) the head's brain and has sprouted a whole new area of study called "neurocardiology".

And the heart is not just a brain -- it's also an endocrine gland, producing a number of hormones, many of which are the same hormones produced in and used by the head's brain.

So we start to see that your heart is a central link between itself, your head's brain, and your body's hormonal system. The central hub of our body and mind wheel, as it were.

But more on the links between head and heart brains in a bit.

The Heart and your Nervous System: Keeping Balanced

Your nervous system is more than your brain and spinal cord. These two are known as your central nervous system, but you also have a peripheral nervous system that links your brain and all the other parts and systems of your body.

The peripheral nervous system also includes two parts: the somatic or voluntary nervous system (which controls your skeletal muscles) and the autonomic nervous system, which carries information from and to the internal organs, glands, and the immune system.

Then, there are two parts of the autonomic system we'll be focusing on and these are the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems.

You can think about your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) as your " stress" system. When you are stressed, your SNS kicks into gear to prepare your body for "fight or flight": your blood pressure goes up, your heart speeds up, you breath harder, your digestion stops, you secrete adrenaline -- you generally get ready to fight back or get the heck out of there.

Your parasympathetic system (PNS), on the other hand, does virtually the opposite. It kicks in when the excitement is over and you can afford to settle down to a more peaceful, "steady state": you digest your food, your heart slows down, your blood pressure stays low, your bowel and bladder resume normal functioning.

While you want your SNS to be able to kick in in an emergency, it's not the place you want to be over the long term (or just even for too long...). Chronic stress is associated with the development of many physical, emotional, and even cognitive problems. For example, chronic stress actually can kill cells in the hippocampus - a structure in your brain that is linked with memory storage.

What's this got to do with your heart?

Well, your heart is responsible for maintaining the balance between the sympathetic (think stress) and parapsympathetic (think peace) nervous systems. And since the balance between these two systems affects the functioning of the brain as well as keeping the rest of the body in balance....well, you can start to see why it's a good place to begin.

If your Heart and Brain are physically in Sync, you get "Flow"

Now we start to get into the really exciting stuff.

The heart doesn't only affect the brain indirectly through the peripheral nervous system.

There is a direct connection between heart and brain that actually allows them to be in sync under the right conditions.

What are these conditions?

We measure the heart's activity in rhythms. Research has revealed that our rhythmic pattern of variability in our heart rate is related to our health, our emotional states, and our thinking.

Not only that, but your heart's rhythms act as a powerful force to bring the rest of your body, including your brain, into a similar rhythm. If the pattern of your heart rate variability is one cycle every ten seconds, then it pulls the brain into a state of synchrony - i.e., your brain harmonizes with your heart and both operate at higher levels of efficiency and effectiveness.

Getting your heart rate variability to once cycle per 10 seconds is the trick -- and anyone can do it.

Keep reading... ;-)

Your Heart Informs Your Brain

Your emotions and cognition are interacting systems, both carrying important information.

To operate at optimal performance levels, we need to keep these systems linked and integrate all our available information from both mind and emotions.

If we look just at the brain, there are hard-wired 2-way connections between structures that produce emotions and those that process sensory and "thought" information.

Interestingly, the actual number of connections from emotion structures to thought structures is greater than the other around. So clearly emotions are something important for us to include in our thinking ;-).

Here's an example of how unconscious and yet how important the heart's influence using "feeling data" can be:

HeartMath Institute researchers conducted a study in which they showed participants a series of images while monitoring their heart and brain activity. Images were either peaceful, pleasant photos of pets, children, nature, etc. or unpleasant photos of violence, trauma, or threats. They found that participants' hearts registered an emotional reaction to the disturbing photos five to seven seconds before the image appeared.

Did you get that?

The responses of the participants' hearts suggests that somehow our heart senses emotional information up to 5-7 seconds before it happens.

It gets weirder.

Not only did their hearts register the information 5-7 seconds before the image was shown, but the brain activity of participants also shifted in the same direction as their heart 3-4 seconds before the image.

So we get a sequence here:

Events happening around you -> your heart picks up information and responds -> sends information to your brain -> your brain starts to respond -> you become aware of event (and, likely, the responses that are already happening).

HeartMath researchers concluded: "The fact that the heart is involved in the perception of future external events is an astounding result. The classical perspective assigns the brain an exclusive role in information processing. This study opens the door to new understandings about intuition and suggests that intuition is a system-wide process involving at least both the heart and the brain working together to decode intuitive information."

I don't know about you, but that blew me away the first time I heard it!

So not only are emotions important contributors to our "output" of thoughts (in terms of motivation, attention, etc.), but...

are you ready for this?...

Emotions are maybe one of the best ways to influence and create change in what and how we think -- all the time, unconsciously (but not necessarily undeliberately).

Do you understand how important that concept is? How you feel can improve how you think.

Let's unpack it a bit more.

Other research from the HeartMath Insitute has shown that the key to integrating your feelings and your thoughts is to increase the coherence in both systems and bring them into phase with each other.

What's coherence? Well, it refers to the ordered, harmonious functioning of a system.

When a system is coherent, it means that virtually no energy is being wasted and therefore its power is at maximum. Coherence is efficiency, the power to adapt, to innovate, to be stable, yet flexible, to be resilient.

Remember how the brain and heart can be in sync?

Well, what would happen if you could achieve coherence in one of these?...

The other would become more coherent as well -- kind of a 2-for-1 deal! Cool, eh?

What's that? You dion't understand why I'm so excited about coherence?? OK, let's explore that concept a bit more.

What happens when your heart is "coherent"?

First, let me make a quick distinction between the brain's emotions and the heart's feelings. It's important to understanding why coherence produces all the amazing effects it does.

The HeartMath folks make a distinction between "lower" and "higher" emotions.

"Lower" emotions are the ones coloured by your brain's data: past experience, future goals, attachments, "conditions". They tend to include the emotions that don't feel so good.

"Higher" feelings are an authentic expression of the moment; without expectations or conditions.

When you are generating coherence, you are spending time with the higher feelings of compassion, appreciation, joy, and these are creating that special heart rate variability rhythm of one cycle per 10 seconds and producing the wonderful effects of the brain-heart "in sync" quality that results.

So - what are the wonderful effects of brain-heart sync'ing?
shifts in perception of situations, different insights and awareness
reduced stress
improved immune system responses
decreased physical pain
decreased emotional distress
improved productivity
fewer emotional "reactions" such as anger, fear, blame, etc.
ability to deal more effectively with difficult situations

I could go on, but I think you are starting to get it, yes?

Improved heart coherence creates improved brain coherence and affects intelligence, awareness, clarity, creativity, emotional balance, and personal effectiveness.

A great little tool, wouldn't you say?

There is a short ebook from HeartMath that covers this information in more detail and gives some brief instructions in how to do it -- just click on the book image right below this. If you're interested in finding out more about how to use heart coherence to change your levels of stress, anger, or enhance your intuition (and your life!), let me know by using this contact form. I will add you to my list for periodic newsletters and send you more resources and information on in-person and on-line classes on using heart coherence .

To explore a bit more, try:

HeartMath Intuition study

Science of the Heart e-book - free online version

Article: Scientific Role of the Heart in Learning

Article: A Change of Heart Changes Everything
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