Courage is the measure of our heartfelt participation with life, with another, with a community, a work; a future. To be courageous is not necessarily to go anywhere or do anything except to make conscious those things we already feel deeply and then to live through the unending vulnerabilities of those consequences – David Whyte
Philosophically we have long understood the heart: it’s that place where the authentic self, the real core of our self, emerges from. It’s the birthplace of the emotions we revere the most in our lives – love, care, compassion, appreciation – the kind of emotions that have forever been associated with this word ‘heart.’
Physiologically however, the heart is not simply a blood-pumping muscle. In 1983 it was officially classified as part of our hormonal system because it produces several very important hormones. One is called atrial peptide – its job is to reduce the release of the stress hormone cortisol. Studies show that when we experience prolonged stress, cells of our immune system are unable to respond to hormonal control, and consequently, produce levels of inflammation that promote disease. Inflammation plays a role in many diseases such as cardiovascular, asthma and autoimmune disorders.
However, scientists now also know that, alongside the brain, the heart is the most complex part of the nervous system
The heart is an electrical organ, producing by far the strongest source of bioelectricity in our bodies, up to forty to sixty times stronger than the second most powerful source, which is our brain. This electrical energy permeates every single cell in our bodies, and is so strong that it radiates beyond the skin out into space. It’s around us in 360 degrees, and can be measured three to four feet outside of the body. This electrical activity is what’s measured by an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) and it changes depending upon our emotional state.
The heart contains thousands of specialised neurons, similar to the ones in your brain facilitating a two-way “conversation” between the heart and the brain. Further, as this BBC4 documentary featuring Professor David Patterson (he leads the cardiac neurobiology research team at Oxford University) reveals, the neurons in the heart decide how it will behave, not the neurons in the brain. The heart is therefore not merely a slave to the brain; the relationship is more akin to a marriage, with each needing the other.
The heart transmits way more information to the brain than it receives from the brain (which is mostly just timing information). Information from the heart, including feeling sensations, is sent to the brain through several afferents. These afferent nerve pathways enter the brain area of the medulla and cascade up through the limbic system up into the higher centres of the brain where they may influence perception, decision making and other cognitive processes.
When the heart rhythm patterns are coherent the neural information sent to the brain facilitates cortical function. The HeartMath Institute describes coherence as “a logical, orderly and harmonious connectedness between parts of a system or between people”. Heart coherence is a specific assessment of the heart’s rhythms that appear “smooth, ordered and sine wave-like patterns”. The amount of coherence is measured in our Heart Rate Variability (HRV), which is the time, in milliseconds, between two successive heartbeats. (I write about “coherent leadership” here)
Feeling positive emotions – like compassion, appreciation and love – actually triggers heart coherence. From a physics perspective, virtually no energy is wasted because our systems are performing optimally and there is synchronisation between heart rhythms, the respiratory system, blood pressure etc. The benefits to us are increased composure, more energy, mental clarity, improved decision making and enhanced immune system function.
On the other hand, negative emotions, like anger, frustration and resentment, create erratic and disordered, or incoherent, heart rhythm patterns. The corresponding pattern of neural signals traveling from the heart to the brain inhibits higher cognitive functions, limiting our ability to think clearly, remember, learn, reason, and make effective decisions (helping to explain why we may often act impulsively and unwisely when we’re under stress.) The heart’s input to the brain during stressful or negative emotions also has a profound effect on the brain’s emotional processes — actually serving to reinforce the emotional experience of stress.
The charts below are someone’s actual HRV, the left when they are thinking about something frustrating, and the right when that same person is thinking about something they are appreciative of. These demonstrate that by simply recalling a time when you felt sincere appreciation and then re-creating that feeling, you can increase your heart-rhythm coherence, reduce emotional stress and improve your health. It is not the mental image of a memory that creates this effect but rather the emotions associated with the memory. In this TEDx talk HeartMath’s Howard Martin demonstrates this effect live on a member of the audience.
So, simply by focusing on positive emotions (and you can incorporate this into meditative practices or simply by breathing into the heart) we can intentionally put ourselves in a state where we will not only impact our health, but we will make better decisions.
Scientists at The University of Sussex also found a correlation between the heart and decision making: in a study of hedge fund traders, participant’s ability to detect their hearts was assessed simply by counting their heartbeat without touching their chest or pulse and then determining whether an auditory tone was synchronous with their heartbeat. Despite widespread belief that City traders are heartless, it was found that those who had higher interoceptive awareness (i.e. were more in touch with their hearts) were more financially successful.
Our hearts then are a source of intelligence within all of us. When we speak from the heart, when we follow our heart, when we connect to those things we already feel deeply, we are drawing upon our wisdom.
When we make heartfelt decisions and live into those decisions, we are making the decision to live courageously.
Also published on Medium.