Lilipoh editor Walter Alexander interviews Rollin McCraty, PhD, research director of the Institute of HeartMath
Spring 2009: Redefining Education - Issue #55, Vol. 14
The Institute of HeartMath, founded in 1991 by Doc Childre, has conducted groundbreaking research on heart/brain communication and the power of coherence, a highly efficient psychological state where all the systems of the body work together in harmony. Out of that research have come scientifically validated stress relief products and services. After conducting the interview below, I asked for a review sample of one of the HeartMath stress monitoring devices. I was given a choice: either the hand-held emWave Portable Stress Reliever or the emWave Stress Relief System. I opted for the latter because of its PC full-screen readout. Not only does the software provide a real-time display of heart rate monitoring, it produces moving bar graphs of coherence, broken into low, medium and high coherence levels.
At home, I loaded the software and hooked up the USB finger cuff and tried it out. What was initially shocking was that although with relative ease and modest concentration I could get myself calm with a heart rate in the upper 50s (bpm), the bar charts showed my “coherence” levels to be in the basement 100% of the time. Only during listening to some “serious” music did I see the middle coherence bar move up, and then working intensively with some meditative verses I graduated to a few stretches with more than 50% of the time in the middle and high coherence realms. I was still at the lowest challenge level.
A few days before this writing, it was announced that the portable device won the Last Gadget Standing People’s Choice Competition at this year’s Consumer Electronic Show. The HeartMath Institute offices and laboratory are nestled deep in a Redwood forest near Boulder Creek, California, at the end of a series of switchbacks more than an hour south of San Francisco. There I interviewed research director and co-founder Rollin McCraty.
LILIPOH: Let’s start with the name—HeartMath. Why?
Rollin McCraty: When I met Doc Childre 23 years ago, he showed me what he had found—that the heart is the access point to the higher part of ourselves. He saw also that our planet was going into a rapid shift—which we are in now. A shift that creates a lot of stress—stress necessary for that transition. That’s what the HeartMath tools are about—to help people with that stress and to understand that the transition is from mind-based awareness to heart-based awareness. This isn’t a metaphor. It’s literal. The idea is to help people ease through that transition.
L: So you teamed up with him?
RM: I walked away from a multimillion-dollar company that I owned to join him with the other co-founders to help people move more toward the heart.
L: So the name—to balance what we used to associate with “heart?” When my brother and I would buy frilly Hallmark cards with hearts on Mother’s Day for Mom.
RM: And to get it away from Valentine’s Day sentimentality, too.
L: That’s related to why Rudolf Steiner insisted on the term “spiritual science”—and then there’s the science, itself, of course. I see you have your laboratory in this building. Can you share some of the key insights that have come out of your work here?
RM: Actually, some of the key knowledge predates our work by a hundred years. About 90 percent of the fibers among the 3000+ in the parasympathetic nervous system’s vagus nerve are afferent, ascending. They are monitoring the body and sending information to the brain. And only ten percent go the other way from the brain to the body.
I doubt that more than a few physicians know this, but in reality, neurally speaking, the heart sends far more information to the brain than the brain sends to the heart. No other part of the body has that level of afferent connection to the brain. Other research carries this farther, and shows that it is the heart that modulates brain function and perception.
L: Which speaks to the heart’s primacy as a sense organ, rather than as a pump.
RM: Yes. A hormonal gland and a sensory organ with forty thousand sensory neurons. And not just sensing the body. In our electrophysiological work—it’s surprisingly easy to do these studies with signal averaging techniques—we can quite literally measure my heartbeat in relation to your brain waves at conversational distances. Information is being transferred at an energetic level. With an instrument, a $40,000 magnetometer, we can detect the magnetic field of the heart at about three feet from the person, and the brain at about three inches. But we can measure the effects between people at much greater differences by monitoring their EEGs and ECGs.
L: Which is to say that the nervous system is much more sensitive than the $40K device.
RM: And that our connectedness is measurable at a physiological level. Not only can I detect your heartbeat in my brain waves, but especially if I’m in a deeper coherent state, my brain waves will synchronize to your heartbeat—measurably. And it goes way beyond that.
Winfried Otto Schumann (1888-1974) predicted resonant frequencies in layers of the ionosphere that have since been verified. It turns out that some of these frequencies are in the same range as those of human brain and heart activity. You can think of them as the brain waves and heart rhythms of the planet, and there is an amazing overlap with human biological rhythms.
L: How does that manifest in actual events?
RM: Some large-scale studies in the US and in Russia have shown that when you have disturbances in the geomagnetics of the earth (which are related to high solar activity), the incidence of heart attacks goes up—along with traffic accidents, suicides, rates of depression. Even PSI abilities are modulated by these rhythms.
L: Can you say more about the connection to health?
RM: Franz Halberg, the founder of chronobiology, found that of all the bodily systems, the most reflective of changes in geomagnetic activity is the human heart. And the best measure of that is heart rate variability or HRV, which is a measure of beat-to-beat changes in both the strength and duration of the heartbeat. It has been very well established that low HRV is a strong predictor of future health problems—including all-cause mortality. It’s a better predictor of future mortality and morbidity than any of the standard risk factors—like cholesterol levels or smoking. HRV has been one of our primary fields of research since before it was considered important among conventional clinicians.
L: Why is too little HRV a negative predictor?
RM: Age is the strongest factor, with younger people having greater HRV—and it diminishes as we age. But there are examples of older people with very high HRV—and they are invariably very healthy, vibrant individuals. I have come to view HRV as a measure of vitality, of the integrated wholeness of a person. Low HRV suggests depletion and psychological rigidity.
L: I’ve heard at cardiology conferences that low HRV predicts future heart attacks.
RM: Stewart Wolf showed back in the ‘60s that those whose HRV did not return in the first weeks after a heart attack were less likely to survive--but it took him 10 years to get it published. Now there are more than two-hundred thousand papers on the subject.
L: What factors besides age negatively impact HRV?
RM: It’s very clear now that if you have accumulated emotional stress, depression, anxiety or prolonged physiologic stress—at an emotional level, that accumulated stress results in reduced HRV. We’re involved with a few Olympic teams where we are using HRV to test for overtraining. When you start depleting the system rather than replenishing, it shows up—HRV is a very sensitive indicator. I don’t know of a better physiological measure that really gives us a measure of overall . . . what I like to call integrated energetic physiologic vitality.
L: And here’s a chance to make the connection with your commercial products.
RM: That’s our stress research. Certain emotions and attitudes deplete our energy reserves, while others renew them. It really gets down to being that simple—learning to have more self-regulation and choice in our emotional diet.
The scientific community has not done humanity justice, regarding emotion. It’s still not understood. Recent books are still saying that emotions are something that happens to us and we have no control over them. That’s utter nonsense.
L: It’s the transformation that our time is about.
RM: Yes. From brain-based to heart-based. And that brings in another variable, beyond the quantitative HRV measure—which is pattern. If you look at these two heart rhythms (see figure), the amplitude is exactly the same between two decimal points, but even so, they are profoundly different. In the top one there’s a desynchronization of the two branches of the autonomic nervous system.
Literally, it’s like driving your car with one foot on the brake and one on the accelerator at the same time. What are we doing then? We’re burning a lot more gas, depleting the system, putting more stress and wear and tear on it—and the heart has a jerky ride. This is a rhythm now associated with what’s being called cortical inhibition—termed that by a famous husband and wife team, the Laceys, in the ‘70s. They got the paradigm to start to shift away from the notion that everything is being controlled from the brain, and moved things back towards the body and heart. The bottom rhythm is the one the system naturally goes into when we’re feeling emotions of appreciation, care, love, compassion or gratitude—and it facilitates cortical function. The chaotic rhythm is associated with cortical inhibition.
L: And the HeartMath products?
RM: They are simple tools to help us learn to catch those chaotic emotional waves and then manage and transform them into coherence.
L: You mentioned coherence before. Please say something more about what you mean by it.
RM: Technically, coherence is the harmonious flow of information, cooperation, and order among the subsystems of a larger system that allows for the emergence of more complex functions. It brings with it more ordered mental and emotional processes as well as more ordered and harmonious interactions among various physiological systems. It’s a dynamically stable state, out of which sensitivity to another level of information arises. Speaking philosophically, coherence increases our contact with our higher self. It expands our access to higher consciousness tools—and it’s really about the shift we are going through from the mind to the heart. It’s another dimension of intelligence that makes life easier.
L: How easier?
RM: We can learn rhythm through resistance.
L: Please explain rhythm and resistance a bit more.
RM: Resistance refers to both the external sources of stress that we encounter in day-to-day life and our own internal resistances to self-regulation, our changing moods, and so on. As we learn to find the flow or coherence, we often find that we can find a balanced rhythm to help navigate the resistances with more ease and grace. It is knowing when to push through, or back off for a while, etc. Learning to follow the heart’s intuition is often one of the most effective ways to find this rhythm and balance.
L: Can we go back to this resonance between the individual or groups of individuals and the ionosphere? I first learned about your work through James Dyson (see LILIPOH, Issue 54, Winter 2008). And he mentioned that connection as being reciprocal—which is consistent with what I am familiar with from Steiner—but still shocking.
RM: For most people it is not too far of a jump to accept that we are born into and live in the earth’s magnetic field. We go a step further in our hypothesis—check out the Global Coherence Initiative on the web—positing that strong human emotions modulate the earth’s magnetic field. Not only can planetary stress waves be created, but you can also create planetary coherence waves. There’s some data to support that this may not be so far out.
L: For example?
RM: Two lines of evidence. There’s a long history of research showing that human emotion will cause otherwise random events to stop being random. Fifty years ago it was shown that nuclear decay can be modified by human emotion, and more recently studies have shown that strong emotion, especially collective strong emotion, makes random number generators stop being random.
Roger Nelson, retired from Princeton, set up a worldwide network of random number generators plugged into a central server. The number streams from those RNGs all went off randomness on 9/11 in the same way—and they did it 2-3 hours before the first attack. Such a planetary stress wave suggests collective intuition. Magnetic field detectors over the US east and west coasts also registered changes before, during and after 9/11.
We saw smaller RNG effects, but definite ones both locally and globally, during the millennium year celebrations. We watched the effect, about a quarter of the way out of randomness, march right around the planet.
L: This helps us go from the wonderful sentiment “we are the world” toward an understanding that it’s not just a sentiment, but actually fact. What really becomes almost absurd, then, is that we are fallen into a state that assumes we are not connected to the rest of creation. But there are reasons for that, too. So how do you gather more proof of this sort, and then what do you do with it?
RM: That’s the Global Coherence Initiative.* You organize large groups of people who’ve learned how to achieve coherence. You get them to report their coherence data back to you while you simultaneously monitor the earth’s rhythms. It will take years to really test this thoroughly, but we will be measuring a large number of humans in a coherent state with a shared positive intention—powered by emotions of care and compassion, that’s the key—not thought—while we simultaneously monitor the earth’s fields, and another social outcome variable, hopefully.
L: You know—you’d probably agree with me if we talked this out—the notion that you can have compassion or caring without a thought content is not a true one. Georg Kühlewind coined the term “cognitive feeling”—with regard to feeling states that are not subjective, but that actually convey knowledge or understanding. Also, you have to have compassion towards someone or something, or gratitude or appreciation for something. I presume you’re targeting cold abstract thought, the monkey mind, as a negative, and not living thought in the realm of meaning.
RM: I can agree with that. I think we think as we feel, not the other way around.
L: And these coherent emotional states, of course, resonate between people.
RM: Between people, and between people and animals. We’ve shown both. I can show you EEGs of two people about five feet apart, where one person’s brain waves literally synchronize to another’s who is in a coherent state. I can also show you a person’s chaotic brain waves become coherent as she pets her dog. And there’s a dramatic shift in the dog, as well. It’s been shown with horses, too. I’m pretty convinced.
L: Something you’d expect, but it is good to see it. The relation to future events is much harder, isn’t it?
RM: We have shown that, too—following some of Dean Radin’s work at IONs** with people being shown randomly selected images, some of them really disturbing or violent images and some pleasing or beautiful. When someone is in a coherent state, the heart sends an afferent signal to the brain before the disturbing picture is shown. Certain specific brain signals have been understood to signify when one becomes conscious of something. In this test, they occurred a full second and a half after the heart knows, according to the potentials measured in the heart. We’ve published our data in a peer-reviewed journal (R. McCraty, M. Atkinson, R. T. Bradley – Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 2004). What this is saying is that the heart appears to have access to a field of knowledge not limited by time and space.
L: So the challenge for us is to have access to what our hearts know.
RM: Yes. To me it is higher self, spirit, whatever term you put on it. It’s not a big jump to say we have this system and the heart is its central nodal point. It’s the primary conduit to the spirit part of ourselves—so that whenever we are in a coherent state and able to manage our emotions, especially positive emotions that amplify the force of intuitions, we facilitate the flow of information from the higher self, spirit, into the human mind/brain system. You could spend a lifetime studying HRV and the rhythm between heartbeats where the intuitions are encoded.
L: But the goal then would also be to apply them in practical ways. To adults, to children, even.
RM: Yes. My observation is that the heart rhythms of kids reflect much higher levels of coherence. I proposed a study with some graduate students to look at children up to about 5th grade to establish baseline levels of coherence. With that, we want to look at changes over time between different educational sytems—between urban, Seventh Day Adventist and Waldorf schools
Also, we have a program called HeartSmarts which aims at helping kids to stay inwardly connected. The most exciting part, to me, is that with it, a subset of high school kids were literally able to establish a new physiological baseline—one where coherence had become their new, established familiar state.
L: That is a great gift.
RM: In the military, our HeartMath devices are being used in about 35 VA hospitals. With reports coming out that they are the best thing yet for post-traumatic stress disorder and other reintegration issues for returning vets, they’re getting support from some high level generals.
L: I would think that these devices can help sidestep some of the stigma issues that many in the military have with going to a psychotherapist.
RM: Yes. Many have that. But, so many have reintegration issues. We’ve developed a phone coaching model for working with the emWave device.
L: You’re doing a lot of good work. How do you prioritize what to do first each day?
RM: Intuition. I make a list on the board and ask which makes most sense for me to do today?
L: Well—thanks ever so much!
**Institute of Noetic Sciences