Heart Intelligence, published earlier this year by the HeartMath Institute, is the Institute’s newest book on the communication capabilities of the heart. The book summarizes the research done by this institute over the past 25 years and brings us up to date on the latest surprising findings about the heart’s intelligence. I’ve touched on some of these facts before, but it’s worth updating this information because our hearts are central to health in so many ways, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
The heart begins beating in the developing embryo at a very early stage of its development, being detectable by about week six. Both the heart and the brain emerge from the fetal neural tube, with neurons migrating from the neural tube to form the future brain in the developing cranium. The key point here is that both the heart and the brain come from the same origin in the neural tube, with the heart emerging first. Heart and brain come from the same neuronal matrix, and they retain a deep neuronal connection throughout life. Joseph Chilton Pearce makes this point clearly in his new book, The Heart-Mind Matrix.
As far back as the 1960s and ’70s, researchers John and Beatrice Lacey found the existence of two-way communication between the heart and the brain. The term “heart brain” was introduced in 1991 by neuro-cardiologist Dr. Armour to indicate the strength of the neural network in and around the heart. Subsequent researchers following up these early findings established that there is constant two-way communication between the heart and the brain.
It’s worth noting that brain intelligence differs from heart-centered intelligence. The standard IQ test measures certain aspects of brain intelligence, but it overlooks other aspects such as feelings and emotional intelligence. Heart-centered intelligence includes this as it interacts with the brain and modifies its activity. Surprisingly, the heart sends more information to the brain than vice versa. According to Deborah Rozman in Heart Intelligence, “The heart helps synchronize many systems in the body so that they can function in harmony with one another.” Heart-based intelligence influences brain centers involved in thinking and feeling.
A story Rozman tells illustrates this point nicely. Before she became connected with HeartMath, she taught Gestalt psychology to adult classes. When students had a conflict over some issue, Rozman placed two pillows on the floor, having students pretend one was the head and the other the heart. Students were to sit first on the “head” pillow and let their head talk to their heart about the problem. Then they moved to the “heart” pillow to tell their heart’s view of the problem. The difference was often striking, like two different people talking to each other. After switching back and forth several times, the insights that emerged from bringing head and heart together clarified the matter remarkably. The heart’s wisdom was a major factor in resolving the problem.
Heart coherence involves harmonious heart rhythm, but it also involves the heart and brain being in sync with each other. Together, the heart and brain help coordinate many of the body’s functions through the autonomic nervous system. This helps all our internal systems work together in harmony rather than in a chaotic free-for-all that could be disastrous. The heart is primary in all this. Its connections to the brain influence key centers in the brain, including the prefrontal cortex and amygdala. These in turn help determine our emotional state.
HeartMath developed a simple exercise to improve heart coherence: Focus your attention on your heart as you inhale and exhale slowly to become centered. Then recall an experience of caring about a loved one, a pet, or even a special place. As you’re doing this, your heart goes into a more harmonious rhythm. Your brain receives these heart signals, and your whole body moves toward coherence. Your nervous, hormonal, and other internal systems become better aligned, your blood pressure improves, and you’re more likely to feel inner composure. Doing this for a few minutes daily can provide many sustained benefits.
Rollin McCraty, PhD, is a professor of psychophysiology at Florida Atlantic University. He’s also EVP and Director of Research at HeartMath. Recent research there has shown that the heart and brain have remarkable intuitive capacity. Subjects, hooked up to equipment that continuously records physiological data, were shown pictures that elicited either calmness or a strong emotional reaction. Pictures were randomly selected by computer. Nobody involved knew the picture to be selected in advance. The surprise finding was that the heart and the brain reacted to each picture a few seconds before it was shown. Skin conductance measurements did not show this kind of pre-stimulus reaction. Only the heart and brain had a pre-stimulus reaction, with the heart’s reaction being fractionally faster than the brain’s.
These findings have since been confirmed by other scientific researchers. As McCraty says, “The results clearly suggest that the heart and brain are connected to a source of information that operates outside the classical boundaries of time and space. In physics this is called nonlocal information.” Multiple investigators have shown that the heart’s activity appears to be the best indicator of nonlocal information. He concludes: “Somehow, information that is outside of our normal ways of thinking about time and space is available to us.”
Nonlocal communication has been confirmed by many scientists, but there is no accepted explanation as to how it works. Research at HeartMath shows that information related to one’s emotional state is encoded in the magnetic field radiating from the heart. This “energetic” communication system works below our conscious awareness, but connects us to others energetically. McCraty’s theory is that a connection between the physical heart and the energetic heart provides an access point for intuitive guidance. The heart then sends this intuitive information to the brain and they respond to it together. Rozman and McCraty note that many ancient cultures thought of the heart as the source of intelligence and inner guidance. McCraty suggests that science may be on the verge of confirming that these ancient views were correct.
In contrast to ancient philosophers, many scientists and medical specialists today think of the heart mainly as a muscular bundle that acts like a pump. It’s a sophisticated pump, to be sure. Medical and surgical advances over the past 50 years have seen amazing progress in our ability to heal all kinds of heart ailments. Stephen Amidon and Thomas Amidon, MD, authors of The Sublime Engine: A Biography of the Human Heart, predict that advances in the next 50 years will be far more remarkable. The heart will no longer be a source of wonder, but simply another organ that can be managed technologically. From this perspective, any concept of innate heart intelligence is a vestige of ancient mythology.
The Amidons say two possible obstacles may hinder their futuristic cardiac utopia. One of the obstacles is cost. As they note, “Gleaming new technologies and cunning genetic therapies are only so much science fiction to a patient without the means to afford them.” However, they’re confident that scientific progress will continue and the cost problems will eventually be overcome. The other obstacle is human nature. Here the authors concede that despite being bombarded with all kinds of warnings, large numbers of us continue to harm our hearts with a wide array of avoidable behaviors. The authors offer no good solution for this challenge: “Although medical science is becoming more skilled at treating the fallout from these lifestyles, avoiding them in the first place will always be preferable to a trip to the doctor after the damage is done.”
I enjoyed reading The Sublime Engine by the Amidon brothers even though it addresses the workings of the heart from a much different perspective than HeartMath. It’s an elegantly written book. The chapter on future medical and surgical treatment of the heart reads like science fiction. Their analysis of the obstacles to this future also rings true. The cost of medical care and the knotty problem of self-sabotaging lifestyles are immense challenges. The irony is that if we as a people could resolve our lifestyle challenges, much of the cost-of-care challenge would be solved.
Although Western culture is submerged in an ocean of unhealthy commercial influences, people can learn how to adopt healthy lifestyles. Some enlightened physicians are incorporating healthy changes into their practices. The Summer issue of Good Medicine has “A Prescription for Change” as its theme. The cover picture features five doctors holding various veggies and fruits, with the statement: “Doctors are using nutrition to reshape medical practice.” Healthy change is coming to American medicine, even though it seems slow, and this brings me back to HeartMath.
I have followed HeartMath’s work for a number of years. Their findings are based on solid science. This is recognized by many scientists, although some scientists are either not aware of HeartMath’s work or simply ignore it because it doesn’t fit into their preconceived paradigms. HeartMath’s research on the workings of the heart is valuable. I’ve adopted the heart coherence exercise as a daily practice. It takes only a few minutes, but it makes my days flow better. Consulting with my heart may seem like a bit of woo-woo, but it’s not. When I take the time to do this, I have better awareness and understanding of any issues I’m concerned about.
Heart intelligence integrated with brain intelligence is a real help in practical day-to-day living. Gregg Braden summarizes this value well in his new book, Resilience from the Heart. He states: “As you learn to merge the senses of your heart and the logic of your brain into a single potent system, you empower yourself to beneficially manage change in your life.” This is a key secret to making everyday life better for ourselves, our families, and our communities.
Ed Dodge, MD, MPH
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This post was published first in Dr. Ed Dodge’s Wellness Newsletter, Volume VIII, No. 7 • July 16, 2016.