Science in Society Archive

Happiness Is A Heartbeat Away

Our heartbeat betrays all our feelings good and bad, and feeling good may be the way to health and general well being Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Heartbeat and emotions

Does your heart beat faster when you see your loved one? Does your heart ‘break' when a love is lost? Does it feel ‘heavy' when you are sad? There is no doubt that feelings are intuitively connected with the heart, as our language indicates.

Scientists have discovered that emotions actually affect the way the heart beats. Your heartbeat betrays your emotional status, and more importantly, managing your emotion may improve your heartbeat, and perhaps put you on the path to health.

As described in the accompanying article The Heartbeat of Health [1] ( SiS 35), the rhythm of heartbeat has captured the attention and imagination of the mathematical physics community for the past two decades, and considerable progress has been made in identifying the dynamic structures of the heart rhythm underlying the apparent variability of the heart rate that characterize the healthy heart, which are independent of the emotional state or activities.

In contrast, researchers at the HeartMath Institute in Boulder Creek, California, USA, are interested in the variety of heart rhythms that appear in different emotional states, and in distinguishing them from one another [2]. While most researchers focus on illness and negative emotions, they are among the minority that have been concentrating on how feeling good, i.e., positive emotions and attitudes may be beneficial for health.

The researchers have discovered that positive emotions, such as feelings of love and appreciation, as opposed to negative emotions such as anger and frustration, give rise to a particular heart rhythm that is more “coherent”, and appears to be associated with a general sense of well-being and improvement in cognitive, social, and physical performance.

Positive emotion works primarily by affecting the heartbeat, and the heart is the “most powerful generator of rhythmic information patterns in the body”, acting as the “global conductor in the body's symphony to bind and synchronize the entire system.” The heart's rhythmic patterns on the brain and body not only affect physical health, but also significantly influence perception and other mental capacities.

A potential weakness in the HeartMath approach is in the concept of coherence, which is never defined. They refer to coherence as “global order”, “uniform pattern of cyclical behavior”, and “synchronized interactions among multiple systems”; all of which are aspects of the “quantum coherence” I have defined in my book [3] The Rainbow and the Worm - The Physics of Organisms 2nd Edition , and described as [4] Quantum Jazz { SiS 32). In a quantum coherent organism, the heart is not a global conductor of the body's symphony, but a quantum jazz player that intermesh and syncopates with all other players [1], freely improvising from moment to moment, while keeping in tune and in step with the whole. This conceptual weakness may stand in the way of analysing and characterizing the different heart rhythms more precisely, but does not detract from what HeartMath researchers have achieved so far.

HeartMath places the heart at the centre of physiology, and has developed biofeedback techniques to influence heart rhythm as a way of tuning the rhythms of the body and getting the whole to work more coherently and efficiently.

The coherent heart rhythm of positive emotion

It is quite easy to see how emotion can alter the heartbeat. Simply wire up a person with the usual instrumentation that measures heart rate [1]. Recordings of pulse and respiratory rates can also be done at the same time. After a few minutes, the person is asked to recall his or her most pleasant experience, and at least, in a subject that has been trained, a dramatic shift in the pattern of the heart rate recording is observed. Sustained positive emotions such as appreciation, care, compassion and love generate a smooth, sine-wave-like pattern in the heart's rhythm, which is characteristic of the state of “psychophysiological coherence” (Fig. 1, topmost panel). Simultaneously as the heart rhythm shifts to the new coherent pattern, the pulse and respiratory rhythms also change in concert, and became synchronous with the heart rhythm. In the bottom half of Figure 1, the three time series are analysed for power spectrum density, which estimates the contribution of different frequencies to the complex rhythms [1]. As can be seen, before the shift to the coherent state, the power density spectrum of the heart rhythm shows many frequencies, and is distinct from those of the pulse and respiratory rhythms. After the transition to the coherent state, however, all three rhythms gave the same power density spectrum

Figure 1. Heart rhythm shifting to coherent state and the synchronization of pulse and respiratory rhythms in the coherent state (modified from [2]).

The development of heart rhythm coherence is reflected in the power spectrum as a large increase in power in the low frequency (LF) band, typically around 0.1 Hz (cycle per second) and a decrease in power in the very low frequency (VLF, <0.1 Hz) and high frequency (HF, >0.25 Hz) bands. To quantify heart rhythm coherence, the maximum peak is identified in the 0.04-0.25 Hz range, within which coherence and entrainment can occur. The sum of the area within a window 0.03Hz wide centred on the highest peak in that region is calculated. The total power of the entire spectrum is then calculated by summing up the area under the whole curve, and the coherence ratio is given as: peak power/(total power-peak power). This simple empirical measure is taken as the degree of coherence of the heart rhythm.

When the cardiovascular system is operating in the coherence mode, heart rhythm, pulse rhythm and respiratory rhythms are synchronized and entrained to the same frequencies, with a sharp peak at around 0.1Hz in the power spectrum. This was demonstrated in subjects using a ‘Freeze-Frame' technique to get into a state of positive emotion (package available from Relax UK Ltd ), and requires some training.

During this coherent state, heart-brain synchronization is also observed as very low frequency brain rhythms and electrical potentials measured across the skin, though the synchronization is not quite as dramatic or immediate as with pulse and respiratory rhythms.

The emotional and physiological modes of the heart

HeartMath researchers found that different emotions are associated with distinct patterns of of heart rate variation, each of which in turn reflects a particular physiological state of the body. This is the result of a two-way process: emotions trigger changes in the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system and hormonal system affecting the heart rhythm, and specific changes in physiological activity are involved in generating emotional experience. Thus, emotion and physiology are inextricably interconnected, and by managing one's emotions, it is perhaps possible to manage one's physiological health.

At least six distinct patterns of heart rhythm are recognized, each associated with a different emotional state, or “psychophysiological mode” (see Fig. 2), schematised according to the polarities of positive versus negative emotions and high versus low arousal. But HeartMath researchers consider only one of them to reflect “psychophysiological coherence”, an “ordered, harmonious pattern of physiological activity” generated during the experience of sustained positive emotions. Further “hyper-states” are associated with more extreme emotions, and hence not typical. For example, the state of psychophysiological coherence associated with “love and appreciation” can undergo phase transition to an extraordinary state associated with “wholly selfless spiritual love” by a special “point zero” biofeedback technique, in which the heart rate becomes quite low, and beat-to-beat variation almost disappears. Conversely, at the opposite pole of negative emotion, the incoherent rhythm associated with “frustration and resentment” can evolve into a hyper-state associated with “all consuming ill will or hatred”, from intense fear, anger or rage. Here too, the beat-to-beat variability is much diminished though at high heart rates.

Figure 2. The emotional language of the heart rhythm (modified from [2]).

It is generally believed that heart rate variability is largely generated by the interaction between the heart and brain via the sympathic and parasympathic branches of the autonomous nervous system, which tends to speed up and slow down the heart rate respectively. However, it is the pattern of the heart's rhythm that primarily reflects the emotional state, independently of heart rate; one can have a coherent or incoherent pattern at high or low heart rates.

The heart has an extensive communicative network with the brain. Inputs from the heart not only affects the homeostatic regulatory centres in the brain but also influences higher brain centres involved in perceptual, cognitive, and emotional processing.

Feeling good is good for you

Research in the HeartMath Institute has taken place against a backdrop of evidence accumulating over the past two decades that feeling good is indeed good for you.

Positive emotions play a critical role in infant growth and neurological development, which has enormous consequences for later life [5]. Research on adults has also documented a wide array of benefits associated with positive emotions, which are playing an increasingly important role in the new discipline of “positive psychology” [6]. Positive emotion is “a means of achieving psychological growth and improved well-being over time.” Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson of Michigan University proposed that positive emotions – including joy, interest, contentment, pride, and love – all share the ability to broaden people's scope of thought and action [7, 8], thereby enhancing creativity and intuition. The experience of frequent positive emotions makes people resilient, i.e., more able to cope with stress and adversity. Positive emotions, in broadening a person's outlook on life, produces an “upward spiral” of improved emotional well-being, as opposed to the “downward spiral” of depression in which the narrowed pessimistic thinking engendered leads to ever-worsening moods.

An impressive body of research has documented clear links between positive emotions, health status and longevity. Among the most remarkable findings are those from a study on 180 autobiographies handwritten by Catholic nuns in the United States [9]. The mother superior had asked the nuns to write these short autobiographies in 1930 when they were young women. When the study was carried out in 2000, the nuns ranged in aged from 75 to 95 years, and 76 of them (42 percent) had already died. The autobiographies were scored for emotional content and compared to survival during the ages of 75 to 95. The results revealed a strong inverse relationship between positive emotion in these writings and the risk of dying between the ages of 75 to 95. There was a decrease in risk of dying amounting to 2.5 fold difference between the quarter of nuns with the least positive emotion content in their writings and the quarter that had the most. Positive emotion in early adult life was thus strongly associated with longevity six decades later.

In another study on 407 HIV+ men in San Francisco, positive emotion as scored in a standard psychometric test was again significantly associated with lower risk of death [10].

Finally, using practical techniques that teach people how to induce and sustain positive emotions and attitudes for longer periods, HeartMath researchers have been able to produce positive health outcomes, including reduced blood pressure, improved functional capacity in patients with heart failure, improved hormonal balance and lower lipid levels [2].

Training for coherence through positive emotions

Sustained positive emotion, as mentioned earlier, makes the heart beat coherently and the pulse and respiratory rhythms synchronized and entrained to the same frequencies, with a sharp peak at around 0.1Hz in the power spectrum.

In the coherent heart mode, there is reduced perceptions of stress, a sustained positive effect and a high degree of mental clarity and emotional stability, improved sensory-motor integration, cognition and task performance, increased feelings of inner peace and security, more effective decision making, enhanced creativity and increased intuitive discernment, precisely as has been described in the psychological literature..

HeartMath researchers found that subjective positive emotions and self-regulation is more effective in generating and maintaining the coherent mode than specific breathing methods. They have developed a series of tools and techniques, collectively known as the HeartMath System, to enable people to regulate their own emotional experience and reliably generate the psychophysiological coherence mode (Fig. 1). They claim that consistent use of these techniques facilitates a repatterning process for increasing coherence, making the psychophysiological coherence mode familiar.

Other approaches can also generate increased coherence. In a study carried out at the University of California at Los Angeles, Buddhist monks meditating on generating compassionate love tended to exhibit increased coherence; another study of Zen monks found that the more advanced monks tended to have coherent heart rhythms, while the novices did not. But other meditative approaches that focus attention to the mind and not on a positive emotion, in general do not induce the kind of coherence identified by HeartMath. Though HeartMath's somewhat narrow identification of coherence leaves something to be desired (see above).

Why is coherence beneficial for the body? The short answer [1, 3, 4] is a state in which every part of the body is intercommunicating and therefore functioning in the most efficient and coordinated way. HeartMath lists a long list of improved health- and performance-indicators [2]: problem-solving, decision-making, perceptual acuity, attentional focus, coordination, and discrimination, enhanced well-being, reduction in inner noise, increased intuitive alacrity and efficacy in addressing troublesome issues in life, reduction in depression, anxiety, anger, hostility, burnout and fatigue and increase in caring, contentment, gratitude, peacefulness and vitality; significant reductions in key health risk factors such as blood pressure, glucose, cholesterol; reduction in blood pressure in individuals with hypertension; improvements in functional capacity and reduced depression in patients with congestive heart failure, improved glycemic regulation and quality of life in patients with diabetes, improvements in asthma; reducing pain to the point of reducing or eliminating the need for pain medications

“In short, our findings on psychophysiological coherence essentially substantiate what human beings have known intuitively for thousands of years: namely, that positive emotions not only feel better subjectively, but they also increase the synchronous and harmonious function of the body's systems.”

Coherent heart training for exams

HeartMath has completed a controlled study to access the efficacy of its coherence training program (TestEdge) as a means of reducing student test anxiety and improving learning and test performance of tenth grade students in two large California high schools. The project was funded by the US Department of Education and carried out in collaboration with Claremont Graduate University's School of Educational Studies.

After random selection of the intervention school, the experimental protocol required training the school's tenth grad teachers in the tools and techniques of the TestEdge programme before classes started. Once school began, the teachers trained and coached their students in the coherence-building techniques through the term. Scores on two standardized tests designed to measure student socio-demographic characteristics, attitudes about school, perceptions of feelings, emotions, relationships and test anxiety were collected from 749 tenth grade students across both schools before and after the intervention (training). In addition, recordings of heart rate variability were obtained from a subgroup of students in both schools before and after the intervention.

There was a clear inverse relationship between the level of anxiety and the student's test scores on the California High School Exit Examination in both Mathematics and English-Language Arts before the intervention. Results from an analysis of a sub-sample for students at the end of the study presented quite a different picture. Students were matched by the ninth grad CST (California Standards Test) Math test type and were selected from classes in the two schools with similar class average scores. The pre-intervention mean tenth grade CST math test score for the students in both schools was closely matched (359.71 vs 360.58, p = 0.891). But the post-intervention mean test score in tenth grade CST English-Language Arts was significantly higher for the intervention school – by approximately 10 points (413.44 vs 402.96, p = 0.035). Moreover, this improvement in test performance is associated with a significant reduction of test anxiety in the intervention school relative to the control school (1.99 vs 2.22, p<0.05).

To find out if the HeartMath intervention actually resulted in the expected physiological changes in heart rhythm coherence in students, and if the coherence is associated with their self-reports of reduced test anxiety, a random sample of students from both schools, stratified by test anxiety level and gender were selected for a sub-study. Students completed an experimental procedure that included a computerized version of the Stroop colour-word conflict test, a standard protocol to induce psychological stress, while continuous heart rate recordings were gathered. Before the test, students were asked to prepare themselves in whatever methods they typically used when preparing to perform a challenging test or activity. In the post-intervention session, student in the intervention group were instructed to use one of the positive emotion-focused coherence building techniques they had learned in the TestEdge programme to ready themselves for the test, while the control group students again used their own methods. There was a large and significant difference in the coherence ratio in the intervention group: 3.26 pre-intervention, 4.53 post-intervention; whereas a reduction in coherence was evident in the control group:3.16 and 2.83 respectively. The intervention group in the sub-study also registered a significant reduction in test anxiety as compared to the control group.

The heart is far more than a mechanical pump

HeartMath research has revealed other fascinating things about the heart [2], which tell us it is far more than a mechanical pump. Instead, the heart works as a sensory organ and a complex information encoding and processing centre. It has a ‘heart brain' containing more than 40 000 neurons, with a complex circuitry that enables it to sense, regulate and remember. It can process information and make decisions about cardiac control independently of the central nervous system. It senses hormonal, heart rate and blood pressure, translates them into neurological impulses, processes this information internally, and sends the information to the brain via pathways in the vagus nerves and spinal column. Neurological signals originating in the heart influence the whole body. In addition to modulating the activity of the nervous and endocrine system, it influences the activity of the digestive tract, urinary bladder, spleen, respiratory and lymph systems, and skeletal muscles.

The heart makes and secretes a number of hormones and neurotransmitters, including oxytocin, the ‘love' or social ‘bonding hormone'. Oxytocin is produced at concentrations in the heart in the same range as in the brain. Most heart hormones are released in synchrony with the contractions of the heart, giving rise to pulsating bursts.

With every beat the heart generates a powerful pressure wave that travels rapidly throughout the arteries, much faster than the actual flow of blood, creating what we feel as our pulse. The heart sounds, generated by the closing of the heart valves and cardiac murmurs, can be heard all over the chest and can extend as far as the groin.

Of all the organs, the heart generates by far the most powerful and most extensive rhythmic electromagnetic field in the body. The electrical voltage generated, the Electrocardiogram (ECG) is about 60 times greater in amplitude than the electrical activity produced by the brain, and it permeates every cell in the body. The magnetic component of the heart's field is about 5 000 times stronger than the magnetic field produced by the brain, and can be measured several feet away from the body with sensitive magnetometers. The electromagnetic waves generated by the heart are immediately registered in the brain waves.

Thus, information about a person's emotional state is also communicated throughout the body and into the external environment via the heart's electromagnetic field.

HeartMath researchers propose that the heart's electromagnetic waves may interact with the fields of organs and other structures to create hologram-like interference patterns. “Because the heart generates by far the strongest energy field,…the waves it produces operates effectively as global carrier waves that encode the information contained in the interference patterns. These global carrier waves thus contain encoded information from all of the body's energetic interactions, and they distribute this information throughout all systems in the body. In this holographic-like process, the encoded information acts to in-form the activity of all bodily functions.”

The other half of the process is that the heart is also informed by the activity of all bodily functions, which is reflected in its rhythm from moment to moment [1].

Article first published 03/08/07


  1. Ho MW. The heartbeat of health. Science in Society 35 (to appear).
  2. McCraty R, Atkinson M, Tomasino D and Bradley RT. The Coherent Heart, HeartMath Research Center, Institute of HeartMath, Boulder Creek, California, 2006
  3. Ho MW. The Rainbow and the Worm, the Physics of Organisms, 2 nd edition, World Scientific, Singapore 1998, reprinted 1999, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006.
  4. Ho MW. Quantum Jazz, “The meaning of life, the universe and everything”. Science in Society 32 , 11-14, 2006.
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  10. Davidson RJ, Kabat-Zinn J, Schumacher J, Rosenkranz M, Muller D, Santorelli SF, Urbanowski F, Harrington A, Bonus K, Sheridan JF. Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine 2003, 65(4), 564-70.

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