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The Heart Mind
As we know, heart disease is one of the most common killers of the developed world, which seems rather odd at first glance, doesn’t it? How and why, with all our access to good food, labour saving devices and luxury, could this be the case? Stress being a factor in many modern ailments and conditions, including heart disease, I became interested to see if researching more into the current scientific studies of the brain would throw up any more clues. Modern western culture tends to associate intelligence almost exclusively with the conscious thinking processes of the brain, yet much research is challenging this traditional view; our brains are not our the only organs of intelligence. Odd as it may seem, other civilisations, notably the ancient Egyptians, were also of this opinion.
Some of the most compelling research I have come across has been conducted by the Institute of HeartMath, specialising in stress management, emotional physiology, human energetics and heart intelligence. They are very generous with sharing their research and you can find them at www.heartmath.org. Here is some of it in a distilled form.
The impact of our thoughts and moods on the health and well-being of the body cannot be over-estimated. There are three areas that we need to consider first before we take a more general look at the heart organ itself and what is now being termed ‘heart intelligence’. These are Entrainment, Coherence and Autonomic Balance.
Entrainment is a term that is used to describe rhythms of frequencies and vibrations that lock or merge together. Quantum science shows us that the very building blocks of life are pulsating. Everything in life follows some kind of rhythm. Likewise, your heart rate, respiratory system and blood pressure have their own rhythms or ‘oscillatory systems’ too. When these systems synchronise, it is called entrainment. Once a group of musicians have found a ‘groove’ is an example of entrainment. They fall into a natural rhythm and play in sync and in tune with each other. The heart determines this rhythm as it generates a blood pressure wave’ we recognise as our ‘pulse’. This pulse is felt by every part of the body from cells to organs. Its waves generate the electrical voltage that charge the heart’s electromagnetic field.
Entrainment is affected by what is known as ‘coherent’ and ‘incoherent’ states. Love, joy and appreciation signify a coherent state, while emotions such as anger, rage, frustration and anxiety signify an incoherent one. Either state has a significant effect on the autonomic nervous system; we need to pay attention to it and our feelings are the best indicators. It’s not hard to work out which of the above moods (Love, joy, appreciation, care, frustration, anger, rage etc) we want to embrace or avoid. What most people are not aware of, is how detrimental to their health incoherent states are.
The autonomic nervous system regulates the organs such as the heart, stomach and intestines. It is part of the peripheral nervous systems that generally operate outside of our awareness in an involuntary, reflexive manner. It is divided into three parts: the sympathetic, parasympathetic and enteric nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system predominates when we find ourselves under stress. It activates the ‘fight or flight’ mode, designed to help us make quick decisions whenever we detect danger. It enables us to take some form of immediate action that will remove either the danger from us, or us from the danger. To get the focus and energy required to deal with the situation, digestion slows down, the heart beats faster, blood pressure increases and more oxygen is pumped to the brain to enable us to analyse and assess the situation quickly, then act.
The parasympathetic nervous system in effect does the opposite. It reduces the heart rate and blood pressure and activates digestion. Its what happens when we are at rest or relaxing. Although both these states are autonomic, they are still affected by our thoughts and the moods associated with them. It is common in the developed world for people to be highly stressed, even though there is no apparent or immediate danger. The hormones released as part of the stress response, such as adrenaline, eventually become toxic and start to degrade genes if the stress continues over a long period. We are not designed to experience prolonged stress. When we do, there is a general knock-on effect and the body’s condition deteriorates more and more over time. Yet, for many people this is the state they occupy the most.
Neurocardiology is the name given to this new and pioneering area of scientific study around the heart. It developed out of research that revealed that there are neurons in the heart just as there are in the brain. Estimates are that there are over 40,000 neurons in the heart. Some believe that all the heart’s neurons can communicate with each other simultaneously, unlike neurons in the brain, which ‘fire’ in clusters. Neurons are cells linked with thinking and memory. The influence and health of the heart, therefore take on an even greater significance. The relevance of this to the life styles of western ‘developed’ countries cannot be under estimated, bearing in mind the higher incidence of heart disease and cancer. Western culture is far more of a ‘thinking’ culture than a ‘feeling’ culture. Its association is almost exclusively with the rational ‘ego-mind’ which, as we have seen, is not anything like as rational, unbiased and objective as it likes to imagine itself to be. It can’t be, as it’s functionality requires a narrow focus and to screen most of its incoming sensory data out. There is no evidence that the heart has a similar ‘sensory screening’ mechanism. This suggests that, whereas the brain might not be able to ‘see the whole picture’, the heart may well be able to feel it.
So a new perspective is coming to light. Studies indicate that the heart transmits messages via the vagus nerve and spinal cord that then reach the brain via the Medulla, which regulates many vital bodily functions. The heart is clearly exerting a significant influence on the brain and the rest of the body. It has been said that it appears that the heart is sending more signals to the brain than the brain to the heart. The heart is now known to produce hormones such as oxytocin (known as the “love” or “bonding” hormone) and atrial peptide (the ‘balance hormone’) as well as synthesize and release neurotransmitters such as noradrenaline and dopamine. Oxytocin is linked to socialisation, cognition, tolerance and adaptation. It is also involved in the establishment of pair bonding.
So, is there such a thing as the heart-mind? It would appear so. Seemingly intuitive and less influenced by the vagaries of the external world, It has long been associated with empathy, compassion and as a balancing agent for the mind. To support it in this work, we need to develop a more relaxed, patient attitude to life – which flies in the face of much modern thinking around being simply goal orientated, materially fixated and economic growth conscious.
Our culture still places the ego-mind at the ‘heart’ of learning and intelligence, and ‘cognition’, or ‘knowing’, is still used to refer exclusively to mental functions and mental processes. Yet we all know that an over-active or over stimulated mind can be one of the most frustrating, distressing, even frightening, obsessive, insecure places to be. On a positive note, emotional resilience is now finding its way slowly but surely into mainstream awareness.
The mind can lock us down into ever decreasing circles of anger, fear, judgment, resentment and the need for retribution. Heart intelligence balances with characteristics such as acceptance and empathy. When we come from the heart, we have compassion, feel secure, are willing to listen to others, know there is always more than one perspective to consider and search for the solution that serves the greater good – all of which can be linked to the hormones and neuro-transmitters that the heart releases.
Variations in heart rate, or heart rhythms reflect our inner emotional states. The heart releases peptides, which reduce blood pressure. And perhaps the most obvious example is what happens when we experience fear or stress. The causes of stress are many and varied. Stress hormones are produced by the body to help us make quick decisions and follow through with actions. Worry, over analysing, endlessly plotting and planning, constantly doing; much of contemporary life encourages people to use this as their constant state of being and, as I mentioned earlier, long-term stress is toxic to your system.
Anxieties about performance, social acceptance, appearance and attractiveness, success, conformity and money etc. contribute to ‘negative emotions’ that disorder the heart’s rhythms. Positive emotions on the other hand increase balance and coherence in heart rhythms. Similarly, the nervous system is also affected by our emotional states: joy is our natural disposition and our feelings are our gauge. They tell us how far we are from our natural disposition.
Giving credence to ‘heart felt urges’ or desires suddenly becomes more relevant. We are designed to expand our awareness beyond what we already know, as this causes the brain to produce new neural pathways and, in some case, new neurons. This in turn has its own beneficial affect on the body by reinvigorating its systems, especially the immune system. We are not designed for complacency. For many people however, an internal conflict arises when mental controls and heart-felt urges clash. The heart desires something, which the rational mind starts to fight against, for whatever reason. This is the cause of a variety of psychological conditions such as depression and anxiety. When your own self is divided by a heart-felt urge to explore beyond the usual limits of your day-to-day experience and your ego-mind tells you to stay safe, avoid risk and that you’ll fail in the attempt, the heart and mind become dramatically at odds. If the mind wins out, it will impose its will, fear and limitations, suppressing the natural dynamic and vitality of the body. Neuro-plasticity will be compromised. The individual, unable to respond to an inner need to experience diversity, will start to feel defeated, frustrated. If this imbalance is not addressed, the result could lead to a slow decline in general health, where typically the individual turns their frustration on themselves and starts exhibiting sabotaging behaviours (over eating, increased alcohol consumption, watching too much television, little or no exercise, avoiding doing their own creative projects etc). Feeling good has a direct impact on the heart: joy and laughter are significant in that we tend not to be contemplating the struggles and hardships of life when we are experiencing them. In fact, when we are truly happy, very little mental analysis is taking place. It’s useful to remember that from time to time, and notice how much attention we give to allowing the judgmental, endlessly analysing ego-mind to run riot. Giving yourself a rest from all that mental chatter is well worth the trouble – and one of the quickest ways to achieve this is by focusing on the heart.