Harnessing the power of heart-brain connections to rewire your brain for inner calm and clarity
By Holly Erin Copeland
As anxiety and fear are running high in the face of the COVID-19 virus, there could never be a more important time to rewire your brain for inner calm and clarity. Cultivating ‘mindfulness’ — coming fully into the present — is key for mental resilience. Do this for your own sanity, but also as a gift to those around you.
If I ask you to think about “mindfulness” — where in the body do you imagine? Most of us would likely respond “brain” because we intuitively connect the mind to the brain — we feel our minds in our brain. Which is to say that we locate mindfulness as taking place in the brain.Where did that idea come from and what about the rest of the body? What about the heart?
Our modern Western medicine notion of the brain as the seat of the mind, stems from ideas put forth by Hippocrates in the 5th Century, ‘Men ought to know that from the brain, and from the brain alone, arise our pleasures, joys, laughter and jests, as well as our sorrows, pains, griefs, and tears,’ . However, Aristotle, who came before Hippocrates, had thought differently and proclaimed the heart as the most important organ in the body. Aristotle’s heart-centered view of the body was adopted widely by physicians at the time.
The Chinese were more in alignment with Aristotle. Their word for mindfulness ‘nian’ 念 is a combination of jin 今 “now; this” and xin 心 “heart; mind.” This also reflects the belief in Chinese medicine that the seat of consciousness or “shen” resides in the heart. The Hindu also recognize this heart-mind connection. In their tradition, the Sanskrit word for heart is hrid or hrdayam, which is usually translated as the mind or soul.
So, how does what we feel in our heart affect the brain? What role does heart-focused attention have on our health? And how does breathing, an important component to many forms of meditation, relate to the heart and connect to the brain?
A good place to start is to first understand the biology of the heart-brain connection.
The Science of the Heart-Brain Connection
The heart has a undeniable and immediate physical connection to the brain, one that has been known by science for over a 150 years . One of the most studied connections is through the vagus nerve, which originates in the brain stem and connects directly to the heart. The vagus nerve regulates the parasympathetic nervous system that guides our stress and relaxation response and ties the heart to three key areas of the brain, the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex, and the anterior cingulate cortex .
Let’s break that down. The small almond-shaped amygdala is the ancient reptilian center of the brain that activates the fear and stress response to keep you safe. This organ is very useful if a crocodile lies waiting in the swamp to eat you, but not as helpful in modern life and could be the reason that you may perceive a run on toilet paper in the grocery store to threaten your very survival.
The prefrontal cortex, located at the forehead, is the decision-making center of the brain. This key organ guides executive control over your actions, allowing you to think and act appropriately for a given situation, including your emotional response. The anterior cingulate cortex located behind the prefrontal cortex guides your attention and social interactions such as impulse control, emotion, and decision-making.
The Energy of the Heart
If it feels to you that strong emotions like love and anger produce a lot of energy, you would be correct. The heart produces energy in the form of an electromagnetic signal that is 5000 times stronger that of the brain. All this energy is distributed throughout the body, including the brain.
Amazingly, the heart has 40,000 sensory neurons sending information and hormones to the brain . In fact, the heart sends about 60 times more signals to your brain than your brain sends to your heart. It’s very counter-intuitive, so read that sentence again and let that sink in.
These connections between the heart and brain are so significant that “neurocardiology,” an entirely new field of medicine, emerged in 1985. This active field of science continues to confirm connections between the heart and brain .
Dr. David S. Goldstein, founder and director of the clinical neurocardiology section of the National Institutes of Health studies these heart-brain connections. He says:
I’m totally convinced that the brain depends on input outside the brain, such as cardiovascular system, to influence psychological factors, such as the energy or intensity of an emotional state.
Measuring the Heart-Brain Connection
If the heart and brain are so closely entwined, how do we make that information actionable?
It turns out that the performance metric called ‘heart rate variability’ is super useful here. Technically, it is the variation in the time interval between consecutive heartbeats in milliseconds. It can be achieved by generating a heartfelt positive emotional state and accompanied by slow, steady rhythmic breathing — typically this produces a breathing resonance frequency at 0.1 hZ. These factors lead to heart coherence , which produces a smooth sine wave like pattern in heart rate variability.
High heart coherence has been linked to more efficient functioning of all the major systems in the body — the cardiovascular, nervous, hormonal, and immune systems. It also decreases stress and anxiety, increases cognitive performance (including memory and academic performance), increases blood flow in certain regions of the brain , and can help regulate emotions . Coherence in the heart influences the brain’s alpha brainwave rhythm, a key brainwave state that produces a state of relaxed, alert awareness . Heart rate variability has even been proposed as an overall measure of health and wellness .
Heart Coherence and Flow
Separate from physical and cognitive health, the science hints at heart coherence as a portal to a flow state. Flow is a heightened consciousness state of deep focus — so much so that action and awareness merge, perhaps even a secret to happiness.
The connection between coherence and flow is a bit circuitous — a cascading effect in the body from heart to brain — but stick with me here. High heart rate variability triggers a brain response known as heartbeat-evoked potentials (HEP). HEPs are an electrophysiological brain response that reflects cortical processing of the heartbeat. HEP are particularly prominent in brain regions associated with emotion . The brain responds to these potentials with lower frequency oscillations (delta) stimulating higher ones (theta, gamma) in a type of harmonic frequency generated flow state . In other words, brain activity moves towards a flow state in response to coherent heart rhythms.
Heart Coherence and Meditation
A core principle of meditation is to be mindful of your thoughts because thoughts create energy in the body — what you think matters. But this information about the heart adds a new component. The emotion you generate — what you feel — in your heart matters too and changes brainwave patterns.
The world’s great meditation traditions must have intuitively known this, because a great deal of their practice centers around generating positive emotions like love and compassion. In one study, experienced Tibetan meditators practiced loving-kindness meditation, and through intense focus on emotions in the heart, produced hyper conscious gamma synchrony in the brain .
Researchers studying links between the heart and brain in meditation have also found direct evidence for the brain’s ability to respond to cardiac activity during meditation [8, 10].
Heart-focused meditations can support elevating key brainwave states — alpha, theta, and gamma. Practice producing feelings of loving-kindness, gratitude or awe during meditation. Or, try a guided heart coherence meditation.
Putting it All Together
There are simple inexpensive biofeedback devices that assist with generating high heart coherence. Personally, I’m a fan of the HRV trainer Inner Balance, especially for starting my meditation each morning to initiate heart-brain coherence.
You can practice increasing heart coherence without a device through something called resonance or coherence breathing. This technique uses slow in-out breaths to a count of four to six while generating positive feelings in the heart of love or compassion so that the entire breath takes about 10–12 seconds, similar to what is described here and here.
You can harness the heart-brain connection through powerful, simple techniques to change your ‘mind’ — your state of being. When you feel and breathe into the energy of a strong emotion like love or gratitude within your heart, those signals change your brain. Science confirms that positive feelings in the heart combined with coherent breathing can override brain signals, altering brain chemistry and physiology in extraordinarily powerful and positive ways. By applying these principles in my own life, I’ve been able to decrease stress, elevate consciousness, and activate a calm, clear, and present mind.
The science presented here — coupled with my own experiences — has greatly deepened my appreciation for heart-brain connections and breathwork. There is magic in something as simple as slow full breaths of love and compassion. That energetic organ in the center of your chest does A LOT more than just circulate blood.
We have clear, strong science on the intelligence and power of the heart. The heart is an integral part of our mind — certainly as much a part of our “mind” as our brain. Sages from many ancient wisdom traditions, as well as early Western thinkers and doctors like Aristotle, knew this — proclaiming the heart as the center of wisdom in our body. Perhaps its time to revisit our brain-centered Western concept of mindfulness and invent a new word — “heartmindfulness.”
Heart-brain connections are so critical to understand because during stressful times — like now — it becomes clear how our mind and body can be hijacked by strong negative emotions like fear and panic. Remember that generating heart-centered positive emotions and breathing can work just as much in your favor, as well. Choose to harness them for your benefit. Dig deep and activate the calm inner source of strength within your heart — and your brain will listen.
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