HeartMath Interview with Rollin McCraty

HeartMath Institute

Rollin McCraty is the head researcher with HeartMath Institute doing various in-depth research projects on how the heart and the mind interconnect. Lotus Guide feels that one of the best directions we can take is in the area of evolving consciously which inevitable includes the heart. Albert Einstein once said that it is impossible to come up with any real solutions with the same level of awareness that created the problems in the first place. Rahasya Poe, Lotus Guide Magazine LG: So what has HeartMath been up to lately? And in particular, the emWave device that seems to make your technology available to a wide audience of people. RM: Well, just to give you an idea of what we are doing, I hired a new research coordinator about four months ago because I was not able to keep up with all the research projects myself. There are around 60 studies going on right now. So a lot is happening at HeartMath and there’s a lot we could talk about. There are a number of studies going on with children and we just completed one of the largest studies ever done that examined how emotional blocks affect academic performance and what can be done about it. It’s a large study that was funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Where do you want to start?


LG: A friend of mine, Ray Varlinsky, brought the emWave PSR (Personal Stress Reliever) by so I have had the opportunity to practice with this little device and I find it quite amazing how quickly your body-mind can train with feedback. So let’s start with the emWave PSR and exactly what is the “heart coherence” that it measures?

RM: The emWave Personal Stress Reliever and emWave PC Stress Relief System represent new forms of biofeedback technology. The emWave PSR is a handheld device about the size of an iPod that gives you real-time feedback on your emotional state through colored lights and sound. The emWave PC is a computer-based program that feeds back your heart-coherence levels. Both use a finger or ear-clip pulse sensor. The PC version has a number of interactive games that are controlled by your ability to shift into a more coherent state, which I’ll explain more about later. Biofeedback can mean a lot of things. It’s kind of like meditation; there are a lot of different kinds. The emWave is measuring the beat-to-beat change in your heart rate. This is very different from your heart rate. There are lots of heart-rate monitors out there, but looking at the beat-to-beat change is a very different thing and is called heart-rate variability (HRV). HRV is important for a lot of reasons. One is that low variability is indicative of low overall vitality. When we’re young, we have a large range in our natural variability, and it’s going on all the time; whether we’re asleep or active, this variability always occurs. As we age, the range of our HRV decreases. So we can actually measure a healthy individual’s HRV and pretty much tell, within a range of a couple of years, how old they are.


LG: Could you explain a little more what do you mean by heart-rate variability or HRV?

RM: Heart-rate variability is the measurement of the beat-to-beat change in our heart rate. So, in a healthy individual, our heart rate changes with every single heartbeat and the rhythm of these changes are going up and down; when you take the average of all those beat-to-beat changes—how many times the heart beats in a minute—that’s what heart rate is. But in reality, the heart rate changes with every single heartbeat. There are repeating patterns that emerge in those up-and-down changes in the beat-to-beat heart rate and these patterns can reflect our emotional state and how stressed we are.


LG: So do you want a larger variability or a smaller?

RM: You want a larger amount of variability. If we’re sitting still, which is a good way to measure this, a lot of people are surprised to find out how much variation there is. It would not be uncommon for the heart rate in someone in their 30s or early 40s to vary between 60 to 90 beats per minute. You can think of the range of this variance as the amount of HRV or the amplitude in the range of variation. And this range is age dependent. We have a much larger range when we’re young, and it gets less and less as we age. It actually provides a way we can measure to see if your physiological and chronological aging is matched. Low variability is not good in almost any context—for one thing it’s a strong predictor of future health problems. Low HRV is also associated with stress—especially emotional stress. It’s become very clear now that emotional stress—the feelings of irritation, anxiety, anger, and so on accumulate and drain our vitality. Stress and emotions cannot be separated. Whether it’s feeling out of control, or worrying about finances, or that low drone of an anxiety of never having enough time, these feelings stack up and contribute to the accumulated drain, which affects our physiological systems. It’s the emotions we feel that cause the hormonal changes that are associated with stress—it’s all the inappropriate or unnecessary activations of our nervous and hormonal systems that eventually lead to depletion. This can lead to sleep problems, fatigue, and so on. This ultimately depletes our physiological systems, vitality, and emotional buoyancy. And that’s reflected in lowered heart rate variability.


LG: And the using emWave can actually increase your variability through feedback?

RM: Yes, it can. But the first thing we have to do is to stop and ask ourselves what is it that’s depleting our system. And for the vast majority of people, it is most likely emotional stress. It’s the anxiety, the frustrations, the irritations that have accumulated over time, like a slow leak in our gas tank—you run out of fuel quicker. The emWave helps you shift the negative feelings and replace them with positive emotions and attitudes that renew our vitality by feeding back our heart-rhythm pattern. Positive emotions lead to a very distinct pattern that we call coherence. The key is making a sincere shift. Often we may think we have shifted but we haven’t genuinely activated a positive feeling or really shifted our attitude. The emWave takes the guesswork out and lets you know when you are in the coherent state.


LG: And so much of what you’re talking about is unconscious. I meditate and spend a fair amount of time working on negative emotions and still, I wake up in the middle of the night worrying about something that was totally unconscious to me.

RM: Absolutely. That’s a great example. And this is depleting your energy reserves. We may deny it and put it on a shelf but they’re still there churning in the background. This also forms our attitudes and affects our perceptions.


LG: Right, because it’s running in the background and doing all the filtering on an unconscious level, which is where most of our mental processing is taking place.

RM: Exactly. And those unconscious attitudes are a huge driver and filter of our perceptions, which affects our heart-rhythm patterns. The emWave technologies will measure how much variability you have, but that’s not the most important point I want to get to. The amount of variability you have is an important factor, but even more fundamental and important is the pattern in the heart rhythm. It’s the pattern in the rhythm that reflects what we’re feeling, even on an unconscious level. When we’re feeling irritated or frustrated or anxious, the rhythm that the heart beats out has a specific pattern that can be observed—it’s an irregular pattern, which is associated with unsynchronized activity in our nervous system.


LG: Actually, I’ve done the emWave PC Stress Relief System (computer program) with Ray Varlinsky so I had the opportunity to observe the graphs you’re referring to.

RM: Okay, then you know what I’m talking about. You could probably see the variability pattern was sometimes more chaotic, jagged, or jerky looking.


LG: Right.

RM: That pattern indicates that the activity in our nervous system is out of synch with itself. There are two main branches in the autonomic nervous system which regulate over 90 percent of our internal functions. This is oversimplifying the nervous system, but you can think of the sympathetic branch as the accelerator pedal in a car and the parasympathetic branch as the brakes. When the activity between these two branches in out of synch, it’s like driving the car with one foot on the gas pedal and the other on the brake. This stresses the car, burns more gas, and creates a jerky ride. This is what’s going on inside of us when we are stressed.


LG: I was really surprised at how fast I was able to correct some of that with feedback.

RM: Right. There is a real-time correlation between our heart-rhythm patterns and our emotional state. So feeding back your heart-rhythm pattern gives you an objective way to see when we’re in a coherent state or a desynchronized state. With a little practice almost anyone can learn to make the shift and start feeling the benefits very quickly. I should also mention that the heart sends far more neural signals to the brain than the brain sends to the heart; a lot of doctors don’t even know that. But it’s absolutely true and has been known since the late 1800s. This is important because the patterns in the signals the heart sends to the brain profoundly affect the performance of the brain. The brain obeys the signals that are sent from the heart, just like the heart obeys the signals from the brain. The patterns of the signals that the heart sends up to the brain either inhibit or facilitate cortical function—our ability to perceive and think clearly, make effective decisions, act on our intuition, and so on. If the signals are coherent, it facilitates cortical function; if they’re incoherent, they inhibit cortical function. This is the basic physiology of why, when we get emotionally upset or angry at someone we can say or do something in one moment, then a minute later we realize we just said or did something really stupid—too often it’s something that damages our relationships. I’m sure this has happened to all of us, at least, a few times. I know I have gotten angry and said something that I really did not mean—and then a minute later thinking to myself: I can’t believe I just said that; why did I do that? That’s an example of what’s called cortical inhibition. In this state the parts of our brain involved in clear thinking are out of sync and can not function efficiently and we react from our unmanaged emotional centers. These reactions are much more likely to occur when our nervous system is in a desynchronized, or out-of-sync, state. This also affects our reaction times and coordination, which is why many athletes and sports professionals are now using the emWave technologies to refine their performance by increasing their heart coherence.


LG: And there’s also a chemical counterpart to all this that adds to the equation.

RM: You’re absolutely right. However, those are much slower-acting mechanisms than the neural mechanisms we’re discussing now.


LG: So are you actually talking about something that interacts with the field of energy that we find ourselves in?

RM: Not yet, but I can. The heart generates the largest rhythmic electromagnetic field in the body. And the magnetic component of that field extends significantly outside the body and can be measured with scientific instrumentation. I’m not talking about an “aura,” I’m referring to an electromagnetic field that we can measure with a sensitive magnetic field detector.


LG: So you’re talking about measurements and observations that have been empirically measured and validated?

RM: Absolutely. We’ve published this research in peer-reviewed books and journals on this subject. We’ve done studies that show that our nervous system is tuned into the heart field of other people who are nearby. In fact, we have measured one person’s heartbeat in another person’s brain waves when they are five feet apart. This distance is beyond what most sensitive magnetometers can even detect—which mean our nervous systems are far more sensitive than the equipment we can currently make to measure these fields.


LG: I think in today’s world when we are seriously looking for answers that it’s important to validate as we go; this also opens our mind to greater possibilities when it’s possible to validate. Much like the “four-minute mile” waiting for so many years to be broken but once it was, it became an everyday event for many runners.

RM: Validation and conformation is a major part of research and physics. For example, most people have had an experience along the lines of walking into a friend’s house and feeling that they were upset about something—and we can know this even before we observe their body language or other cues—then we find out that something indeed had happened. Our research has confirmed that this is a real ability we have if we learn to pay attention to our subtler feelings. I was just talking about how our nervous systems can detect the magnetic fields produced by other people’s hearts, but I need to complete the story. There is information about our emotional state in these fields. Think of a radio or TV transmitter; the heartbeat is like the carrier wave and our emotions modulate or imprint the signal with information. The information contained in the magnetic fields generated by the heart are directly related to the person’s heart rate-variability patterns and thus their emotional state. In the early ‘90s when we started to study positive heartfelt emotions as well as stressful emotions, our research found that the best indicator of one’s emotional state was the heart-rhythm patterns, that there’s a vast difference between “thinking” a positive thought and actually “feeling” positive emotion. They’re two different worlds in terms of how they affect our body and our energetic system.


LG: When you say feeling, you’re talking about an actual physiological feeling?

RM: Yes. Emotions have a much greater impact on the body’s systems than thoughts do. When you’re really feeling sincere appreciation, like, Wow, look at how beautiful the sunset is, you’re feeling a sense of awe, you’re not just having the thought.


LG: Yes, I know the “feeling” and it’s often diminished if we attempt to verbalize it.

RM: Exactly. And its the positive, heartfelt emotions like love, forgiveness, compassion, and appreciation, that renew our systems—they are very powerful. When we’re actually feeling emotions like these, our heart-rhythm pattern changes dramatically and shift into what we call a coherent state. That’s the sine-wave-like pattern you probably saw when you were working with the emWave PC. It’s smooth, ordered, and looks like rolling hills.


LG: Yes, it was actually very empowering to see a visual representation of my emotions and to know that I could, to some degree, influence my physiology by altering those emotions and come into coherence. Since most of our emotions are precognitive it was interesting to be engaged in that realm with my conscious awareness and actually feel, to some extent, what it’s like to be in coherence.

RM: That’s our natural resonant state. We’re really wired to be more in that coherent state. The emWave is not only measuring your variability, and how much of it you have, but more important it’s asking the question of how coherent is the system.


LG: I’m curious about something: Of all the studies you’ve done, what is the one emotion that’s shown the best results in creating coherence?

RM: Appreciation.


LG: Appreciation, like gratitude?

RM: Yes. Gratitude and appreciation are similar states; in fact, if you practice feeling appreciation, over time you would develop more of an overall attitude of gratitude.


LG: I’ve read other studies where they’ve shown that gratitude and compassion that were simply being felt by the researchers have been the two emotions that are most conducive for healthy cells on a genetic level.

RM: That makes perfect sense to me. One of the reasons we tend to focus on appreciation when first teaching people how to use our techniques, rather than on compassion or love, is because it’s an emotion that most people can self-generate, whether they practice spiritual concepts or not. I can appreciate the sunset; I can appreciate that feeling I get when I go home and my pet greets me; I can appreciate when someone does something to care for me. These are emotional experiences that we can relate to regardless of our background.


LG: It seems like appreciation, if you stop and think about it, by definition, you’re engaging more with your environment.

RM: That’s true, and what you said reminded me to add—when we’re consciously generating appreciation, we’re actively feeling and creating a sustained feeling, rather than trying to disassociate, which is what a lot of relaxation techniques teach. That’s not taking anything away from the importance of having relaxation skills, but there is a profound physiological difference between relaxation and coherence.


LG: It seems like so much of what we’re going through in today’s world is from our feelings of being disassociated and disconnected with, not only other people, but our environment, our world, and ourselves.

RM: You’re absolutely right. In fact, we find that many people are disassociated from their own emotional system.


LG: And then we feel disempowered.

RM: And that leads to what many people describe as that feeling of an empty hole inside.


LG: I guess we’ve all felt that.

RM: So, that was a long answer to what the emWave does; it gives you a way to objectively measure our level of coherence. It also comes with an animated CD that teaches you one of our techniques called Quick Coherence, which is a scientifically validated technique you can use to make quick emotional shifts right in the moment. So when you get triggered—or start to worry about something, or someone cuts you off in traffic—instead of letting that escalate to irritation and depleting your system, using Quick Coherence allows you to make a shift right in that moment, and shift into a coherent state, and this prevents the stress from accumulating and draining our vitality. An added benefit is that not only do we save energy but we can start accumulating more coherent energy in our system so when stress does present itself we’re better equipped to handle it from an objective place and more capable of shifting out of it quickly.


LG: I guess that’s the advantage of the little emWave PSR (Personal Stress Reliever).

RM: A lot of very well-known PGA golfers are now using the emWave PSR, and PC, to get in the zone so they can really focus and stay calm under pressure. There are many applications for both emWave technologies. Students of all ages use them, especially the PC program, to help with test anxiety, improve memory recall, deal with relationship or peer issues, and such. Some use it to enhance spiritual or religious practices, like prayer and meditation, and others use it to manage the stress of dealing with health challenges, or hectic travel schedules, and so on. We’re also hearing from a lot of people that are successfully using the emWave for a few minutes before bed to quiet their racing mind and set a tone for a more restful night’s sleep.


LG: Well, I can see that we will need to do a follow-up interview and discuss some of the other projects that HeartMath has going on.

RM: It would be my pleasure and your readers can always visit our website for more information. For more on research go to www.heartmath.org For more on emWave go to www.myemwave.org