The Science Behind the emWave® Desktop & emWave2 Products
The emWave Desktop, emWave2 and the tools and techniques of the HeartMath system are based on decades of scientific research on the psychophysiology of stress, emotions, and the interactions between the heart and brain.
The Heart–Brain Connection
The effect of heart activity on brain function has been researched extensively over about the past 40 years. Earlier research mainly examined the effects of heart activity occurring on a very short time scale—over several consecutive heartbeats at maximum. Scientists at the Institute of HeartMath have extended this body of scientific research by looking at how larger-scale patterns of heart activity affect the brain’s functioning.
HeartMath research has demonstrated that different patterns of heart activity (which accompany different emotional states) have distinct effects on cognitive and emotional function. During stress and negative emotions, when the heart rhythm pattern is erratic and disordered, the corresponding pattern of neural signals traveling from the heart to the brain inhibits higher cognitive functions. This limits our ability to think clearly, remember, learn, reason, and make effective decisions. (This helps explain why we may often act impulsively and unwisely when we’re under stress.) The heart’s input to the brain during stressful or negative emotions also has a profound effect on the brain’s emotional processes—actually serving to reinforce the emotional experience of stress.
In contrast, the more ordered and stable pattern of the heart’s input to the brain during positive emotional states has the opposite effect—it facilitates cognitive function and reinforces positive feelings and emotional stability. This means that learning to generate increased heart rhythm coherence, by sustaining positive emotions, not only benefits the entire body, but also profoundly affects how we perceive, think, feel, and perform.
Your Heart’s Changing Rhythm
The normal variability in heart rate is due to the synergistic action of the two branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS)—the part of the nervous system that regulates most of the body’s internal functions. The sympathetic nerves act to accelerate heart rate, while the parasympathetic (vagus) nerves slow it down. The sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the ANS are continually interacting to maintain cardiovascular activity in its optimal range and to permit appropriate reactions to changing external and internal conditions. The analysis of HRV therefore serves as a dynamic window into the function and balance of the autonomic nervous system.
The moment-to-moment variations in heart rate are generally overlooked when average heart rate is measured (for example, when your doctor takes your pulse over a certain period of time and calculates that your heart is beating at, say, 70 beats per minute). However, the emWave desktop technology allows you to observe your heart’s changing rhythms in real time. Using your pulse data, it provides a picture of your HRV—plotting the natural increases and decreases in your heart rate occurring on a continual basis.
Why is HRV Important?
HRV is also a marker of biological aging. Our heart rate variability is greatest when we are young, and as we age the range of variation in our resting heart rate becomes smaller. Although the age-related decline in HRV is a natural process, having abnormally low HRV for one’s age group is associated with increased risk of future health problems and premature mortality. Low HRV is also observed in individuals with a wide range of diseases and disorders. By reducing stress-induced wear and tear on the nervous system and facilitating the body’s natural regenerative processes, regular practice of HeartMath coherence-building techniques can help restore low HRV to healthy values.
Heart Rhythm Patterns and Emotions
In general, emotional stress—including emotions such as anger, frustration, and anxiety—gives rise to heart rhythm patterns that appear irregular and erratic: the HRV waveform looks like a series of uneven, jagged peaks (an example is shown in the figure below). Scientists call this an incoherent heart rhythm pattern. Physiologically, this pattern indicates that the signals produced by the two branches of the ANS are out of sync with each other. This can be likened to driving a car with one foot on the gas pedal (the sympathetic nervous system) and the other on the brake (the parasympathetic nervous system) at the same time—this creates a jerky ride, burns more gas, and isn’t great for your car, either! Likewise, the incoherent patterns of physiological activity associated with stressful emotions can cause our body to operate inefficiently, deplete our energy, and produce extra wear and tear on our whole system. This is especially true if stress and negative emotions are prolonged or experienced often.
In contrast, positive emotions send a very different signal throughout our body. When we experience uplifting emotions such as appreciation, joy, care, and love; our heart rhythm pattern becomes highly ordered, looking like a smooth, harmonious wave (an example is shown in the figure below). This is called a coherent heart rhythm pattern. When we are generating a coherent heart rhythm, the activity in the two branches of the ANS is synchronized and the body’s systems operate with increased efficiency and harmony. It’s no wonder that positive emotions feel so good—they actually help our body’s systems synchronize and work better.
Coherence: A State of Optimal Function
Physiologically, the coherence state is marked by the development of a smooth, sine-wave-like pattern in the heart rate variability trace. This characteristic pattern, called heart rhythm coherence, is the primary indicator of the psychophysiological coherence state, and is what the emWave desktop products measure and quantify. A number of important physiological changes occur during coherence. The two branches of the ANS synchronize with one another, and there is an overall shift in autonomic balance toward increased parasympathetic activity. There is also increased physiological entrainment—a number of different bodily systems synchronize to the rhythm generated by the heart (see figure below). Finally, there is increased synchronization between the activity of the heart and brain.
Coherence Is Not Relaxation
Unlike relaxation, coherence does not necessarily involve a reduction in HRV, and may at times even produce an increase in HRV relative to a baseline state. As can be seen in the corresponding power spectrum, coherence is marked by an unusually large, narrow peak in the low frequency band, centered around 0.1 hertz (note the significant power scale difference between the spectra for coherence and relaxation). This large, characteristic spectral peak is indicative of the system-wide resonance and synchronization that occurs during the coherence state.
Not only are there fundamental physiological differences between relaxation and coherence, but the psychological characteristics of these states are also quite different. Relaxation is a low-energy state in which the individual rests both the body and mind, typically disengaging from cognitive and emotional processes. In contrast, coherence generally involves the active engagement of positive emotions. Psychologically, coherence is experienced as a calm, balanced, yet energized and responsive state that is conducive to everyday functioning and interaction, including the performance of tasks requiring mental acuity, focus, problem-solving, and decision-making, as well as physical activity and coordination.
The Role of Breathing
While HeartMath techniques incorporate a breathing element, paced breathing is not their primary focus and they should therefore not be thought of simply as breathing exercises. The main difference between the HeartMath tools and most commonly practiced breathing techniques is the HeartMath tools’ focus on the intentional generation of a heartfelt positive emotional state. This emotional shift is a key element of the techniques’ effectiveness. Positive emotions appear to excite the system at its natural resonant frequency and thus enable coherence to emerge and to be maintained naturally, without conscious mental focus on one’s breathing rhythm.
This is because input generated by the heart’s rhythmic activity is actually one of the main factors that affect our breathing rate and patterns. When the heart’s rhythm shifts into coherence as a result of a positive emotional shift, our breathing rhythm automatically synchronizes with the heart, thereby reinforcing and stabilizing the shift to system-wide coherence.
Additionally, the positive emotional focus of the HeartMath techniques confers a much wider array of benefits than those typically achieved through breathing alone. These include deeper perceptual and emotional changes, increased access to intuition and creativity, cognitive and performance improvements, and favorable changes in hormonal balance.
To derive the full benefits of the HeartMath tools, it is therefore important to learn how to self-activate and eventually sustain a positive emotion. However, for users who initially have trouble achieving or maintaining coherence, practicing heart-focused breathing at a 10-second rhythm, as described above, can be useful training aid. Once individuals grow accustomed to generating coherence through rhythmic breathing and become familiar with how this state feels, they can then begin to practice breathing a positive feeling or attitude through the heart area in order to enhance their experience of the HeartMath tools and their benefits. Eventually, with continuity of practice, most people become able to shift into coherence by directly activating a positive emotion.
The Intelligent Heart
In the new field of neurocardiology, for example, scientists have discovered that the heart possesses its own intrinsic nervous system—a network of nerves so functionally sophisticated as to earn the description of a “heart brain.” Containing over 40,000 neurons, this “little brain” gives the heart the ability to independently sense, process information, make decisions, and even to demonstrate a type of learning and memory. In essence, it appears that the heart is truly an intelligent system. Research has also revealed that the heart is a hormonal gland, manufacturing and secreting numerous hormones and neurotransmitters that profoundly affect brain and body function. Among the hormones the heart produces is oxytocin—well known as the “love” or “bonding hormone.” Science has only begun to understand the effects of the electromagnetic fields produced by the heart, but there is evidence that the information contained in the heart’s powerful field may play a vital synchronizing role in the human body—and that it may affect others around us as well.
Research has also shown that the heart is a key component of the emotional system. Scientists now understand that the heart not only responds to emotion, but that the signals generated by its rhythmic activity actually play a major part in determining the quality of our emotional experience from moment to moment. As described next, these heart signals also profoundly impact perception and cognitive function by virtue of the heart’s extensive communication network with the brain. Finally, rigorous electrophysiological studies conducted at the Institute of HeartMath have even indicated that the heart appears to play a key role in intuition. Although there is much yet to be understood, it appears that the age-old associations of the heart with thought, feeling, and insight may indeed have a basis in science.