The science behind the heart-brain connection & how it can transform your life
A few years ago I came upon an article that spoke about the “Heart-Brain”. I read in total disbelief that inside our blood pumping heart, mechanical heart muscle lies the mystery of a fully functional nervous center, with its nerve cells that store information, activate the nervous system, that activate our hormonal system and that sends much more information to the brain that it recieves.
“Research has shown that the heart communicates to the brain in four major ways: neurologically (through the transmission of nerve impulses), biochemically (via hormones and neurotransmitters), biophysically (through pressure waves) and energetically (through electromagnetic field interactions)” Science of the Heart
I had never heard any of this before, and thought that perhaps I had fallen asleep in that science class back in middle school!
This was the day I began my journey as a HeartMath (™) trainer and mentor. Once I opened this chapter in my life, the magic and the science of our heart intelligence continues to inspire me in profound ways.
Let’s start with the basics. Yes, we do have an intrinsic cardiac nervous system, “an intricate network of complex ganglia, neurotransmitters, proteins and support cells, the same as those of the brain in the head. The heart-brain’s neural circuitry enables it to act independently of the cranial brain to learn, remember, make decisions and even feel and sense.” (From the book Science of the Heart).
If you are as curious as I think you are (because your are already here reading this article), run your own research about cases of heart transplants and the memories that get transplanted into the receiver. This completely blew me away!
I was surprised to learn that there is also an emerging field of Neurocardiology, that explores the intricacies of the heart-brain.
Back the heart-brain connection now, and why it is so important for inner mastery and leadership development.
Our hearts beat in a coherent, harmonious rhythm when we experience generative feelings, like appreciation, ease, joy, love and compassion. When this occurs, our nervous system is balanced, and our brains are aligned coherently as well, accessing the brain cortex rather than the reptilian and limbic parts of our brains. We think more clearly, we listen with more openness, we activate our creativity and our inner wisdom. The opposite occurs when our hearts beat in a chaotic manner as a result of stressful emotions, like fear, anger and worry. Our nervous system activates neural pathways that get our hearts beating fast, digestion stops, circulation goes to limbs – as in our ancestral experience fear indicated you needed to get running from danger. What our bodies perhaps interpret as the threat of a wild animal chasing after us is in reality by boss, my parter or my client.
How may I best serve myself and others in the face of stress?
These are 3 simple steps:
1-Practice breathing through the area of your heart, or chest.
Just find a rhythm that’s easy for you, 4 or 5 seconds in and out. This will balance your nervous system on the go, as you experience any situation that activates emotions linked to stress
2-Ask yourself, “What am I feeling and experiencing”?
Imagine you are in a movie theater watching the scene, and you are on the screen. Give a name to the emotions that arise at any given moment, as you continue to breathe through your heart. Do I feel it in my body? I tend to feel panic right in my hands, with a tingly sensation. Notice how your body feels. Allow the emotion to flow through you.
3-Choose to shift by activating a generative heart feeling
Now as you continue to breathe through your heart space, decide what you would like to feel inside, given your current state. Perhaps choosing elation when we are blistering angry will be a bit of high reach. So how about I choose serenity, or ease? With every inhale I bring in that generative feeling to my heart. If a thought comes in I gently put it to the side for now as I regulate my emotional state and activate my heart coherence, which can be easily measured with biofeedback tools such as HeartMath’s inner balance sensor.
These steps are adapted from HeartMath Institute’s tools and Hilary Jacob’s Hendel’s Change Triangle.
The beauty of these three steps is that we don’t need to wait for stress to arise to practice them. We can fill our inner battery regularly by noticing how we feel and activating heart feelings through our breath and intention. So the pleasurable moments can be enhanced as I build upon them, increasing my inner emotional ratio of heart-connected moments to energy-draining moments. As we increase our emotional wellness, or “positivity” ratio,, we cultivate a spiral of heartfulness that leads to healthier thoughts, actions, experiences and lives.
1 Leading Well From Within, Dr. Daniel Friendland
2 Positivity, Barbara L. Frederickson
3 Conversations Worth Having, Jackie Stavros and Cheri Torres