Only A Heartbeat Away

(Updated 12-13-07)

"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, 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. 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 The Rainbow and the Worm – The Physics of Organisms 2nd Edition, and described as Quantum Jazz. 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, 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 analyzing 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. 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 "psycho-physiological coherence." 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 analyzed for power spectrum density, which estimates the contribution of different frequencies to the complex rhythms. 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.

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 centered 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.

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