Mysteries of the Human Heart

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“The human heart has hidden treasures, in secret kept, in silence sealed.” — Charlotte Brontë

The human heart, the size of two adult fists, is mysterious, intelligent, powerful, and sometimes inexplicable. The Egyptians believed that Anubis, the god of the underworld and judge of the dead, weighed the hearts of the recently deceased against a feather — if the two balanced, the heart would be returned to owner. If the heart was heavier, it was weighted by bad deeds and fed to a monster.

Heart as Ruler of the Brain

Aristotle considered the heart as the center of reason, thought, and emotion, senior to the brain in importance. Ninth century Arabic philosopher Abu Nasr al-Farabi believed that, “The ruling organ in the human body is the heart; the brain is a secondary ruling organ subordinated to the heart.” Auguste Comte, a 19th century French philosopher declared that the brain should be servant to the heart.

“The most common denominator in all religions is that the heart is the seat of wisdom,” said Rollin McCraty Ph.d, director of research at the groundbreaking HeartMath Institute in Santa Cruz, CA. Twelfth century Christian mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, would agree. She wrote, “The soul sits at the center of the heart, as though in a house.”

The Heart-Brain Connection

If you can read this, your heart is beating at twice the pace of most animals — and humans have vascular disease, while our cousins the great apes do not. With its own electrical impulse, the human heart can continue to beat if taken from the body. Beating heart cells grown in Petri dishes synchronize with each other. The heart emits a signature electrical frequency thousands of times more powerful than anything else in the body.

Neurons, the brain cells responsible for processing sense-based input, send messages to the body, such as, “reach the hand to pick up a sandwich.” Neurons also transmit emotion. These specialized cells are found in the brain and nervous system, but importantly, also in the heart. Neurons can be harnessed to establish heart-brain coherence — In fact, heart neurons fire in conjunction with the brain neurons. The heart and brain are undisputedly, profoundly connected.

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Heart-Brain Harmony

Originally trained as a geologist, Gregg Braden explores the intersection of science and spirituality from the perspective of a trained scientist. He speaks of the heart/brain union, saying, “Our brain receives many of its instructions on what to do from the heart. Studies show that the heart is able to think, feel, and have emotions on its own.”

Heartache vs. Happiness

Studies have shown that intense anger is damaging to the heart — intense grief as well. Statistically, we are 20 times more likely to have a heart attack after the death of a loved one.

Positive emotions like joy and contentment are accompanied by coherent heart rhythms. Happiness is good for the heart. We don’t think of the heart as being capable of producing hormones like the endocrine system, but oxytocin, called the “love” hormone, is manufactured in the heart.

The Heart’s  Singular Intuition

For 25 years, researchers at the HeartMath Institute have innovated tools and methods designed to achieve measurable heart/brain coherence. HeartMath has focused on the psychophysiology of stress, emotions, and heart/brain interaction. Working within the parameters of the prevailing scientific model, these researchers have produced and published over 300 peer-reviewed or independent studies of the effectiveness of HeartMath techniques and technologies. Their research documents several types of beneficial outcomes from achieving heart/mind coherence.

Rollin McCraty Ph.D., one of the original founders of Heartmath, said, “The biggest hidden source of stress on the planet is the disorganization of heart/mind, causing lack of resonance. Lack of alignment eats the life force and happiness out of humanity.”

McCraty described intuition from the perspective of brain science, which identifies “ordinary,” “expert,” and “strategic” intuition. In his book “Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark in Human Achievement,”  William Duggan, wrote, “Ordinary intuition is a feeling, a gut instinct. Expert intuition is snap judgment when you instantly recognize something familiar, the way a tennis pro knows where the ball will go from the arc and speed of the opponent’s racket.

“The third kind, strategic intuition, is not a vague feeling, like ordinary intuition. Strategic intuition is a clear thought. And it’s not fast, like expert intuition. It’s slow. That flash of insight you had last night might solve a problem that’s been on your mind for a month.”

What Duggan calls “strategic” intuition, HeartMath researchers refer to as “non-local” intuition and have established that this type of insight, or “knowing,” is a function of the heart. Non-local intuition is the only type of intuition that involves the heart — the other two are derived from the brain’s experience and entrainment.

“We found that from the body perspective, the heart is the first to receive these non-local signals or intuitions, then they are passed to the brain. It’s a result I wouldn’t have predicted. The heart has access to information outside the boundaries of time and space. It’s been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt,” McCraty said.

But convincing the brain to accept what it may view as ” irrational” is the challenge addressed  in the HeartMath model, where researchers explore ways to resolve the heart/mind split, or “incoherence.” The Western view asserts that the brain is senior to the heart — our cultural and educational focus is on the brain, which is habituated to believing it’s the boss. But making the shift is as easy as intentionally creating new neural pathways in the brain. “The human brain doesn’t like change. Shift to the heart to send messages to the brain,” said Gregg Braden. 

Discussing coherence and healing, McCraty said, “Living systems have the capacity to self-heal.  Multiple studies show heart self-regulation lowers blood pressure, improves hormonal balance, and gives better recovery from heart attacks. More coherence means more health. Coherence facilitates the body’s natural regenerative processes.”

Howard Martin,  HeartMath Inc.’s Executive Vice President, said, “We have this magnificent intelligence that lifts us beyond our problems even in the midst of chaos and confusion. When the heart is put into practical application in daily life, we can experience a new fulfillment, a new life, beyond our greatest expectations.”

Martin described a HeartMath study in which subjects, wired to measure respiratory, heart, and other physiological functions sat in front of computers viewing random images — some beautiful, some potentially distressing. The image stream included a small time gap between pictures. Six seconds before an image displayed, test subjects’ physiology would react to what was coming, be it awful or wonderful. The conclusion drawn was that the heart’s “non-local” intuition anticipated imminent stress or pleasure a full six seconds before the actual experience.

The Heart’s Electromagnetic Field

McCraty explained that the earth’s geomagnetic field is a stationary, pure static magnetic field he likened to that of a refrigerator magnet. A magnet’s invisible electromagnetic fields are seen in iron filings that organize into patterns with lines that express the field. These line patterns are called “magnetic field lines. “These lines within a magnetic field literally act like guitar strings and have their own resonant frequency. Solar wind plucks the earth’s magnetic lines, causing vibration — field line resonance. The Earth’s primary resonance on a normal day is around 1 Hz, precisely the same as the coherent heart,” McCraty said.

He went on to say that human heart rhythms synchronize to the Earth’s resonant frequency to a level or degree no one ever thought possible. “Independent of time zones, we are all synchronizing to the Earth, and at HeartMath, we’re studying how it happens.”

Achieving Heart-Mind Resonance

Dozens of studies have documented the benefits of meditation. Researchers have observed lowered blood pressure, anxiety and depression relief, increased brain “gray matter,” and pain relief, to name a few. Meditation practices also achieve heart/brain coherence. “In meditation, different methods produce heart signatures —  a loving-kindness meditation shows a different signature than say, a mindfulness meditation. Loving-kindness practices shift the heart into a different state, called coherence, a synchronized heart/brain neurology,” McCraty said.

HeartMath has developed practices and technologies to support heart/brain coherence, but McCraty shared some fundamental principles. “ The HeartMath tools, techniques and training process all have one thing in common — they operate in the present moment. The method is to 1. focus on the heart, 2. activate compassion, 3. and radiate that feeling too self and others.” This simple, deliberate method can relieve stress, anxiety, or depression, and lead to all the countless other benefits of heart coherence.

With persistent practice, exercise becomes a habit. Braden said, “There are four keywords for coherence: appreciation, gratitude, care, and compassion. When we practice moving into states aligned with one of these words, or some combination of the four, we create communication between the heart and the brain. This practice takes about three days to establish new neural network habit patterns supporting the heart/brain connection and communication.”

This coherence is not only beneficial to us as individuals — it is possible to create coherence on larger scales than we might imagine. To learn more about what Martin and McCraty call “Global Coherence,” watch this interview with Martin and Regina Meredith on Gaia. To explore the science of the heart’s intelligence, watch this segment of the Gaia series Inspirations, with Lisa Garr.



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The Brain-Heart Connection

The brain: a 3-pound mass of protein, fat, and 100 billion neurons where thoughts are processed and stored. The heart: a half-pound, fist-sized electrical system capable of pumping up to 2000 gallons of blood through the passages of your veins and arteries in one single day, where emotions are believed to be deeply felt.

Both physiologically and psychologically speaking, the brain and the heart provide us with sustaining necessities. Lifetimes could be spent focusing on one or the other of these human super-entities individually; indeed this has been the case for thousands of cardiologists, neuroscientists, and spiritual leaders spanning the history of humankind seeking to unearth information about two of the most powerful drivers of life.

History of the Brain

When laying the foundation for a discussion on the brain/heart connection, it is important to consider the history of each. The organs of the brain and the heart have each seen their own evolution in terms of biological discovery, investigations, and spiritual symbolism.

The first written recording denoting the brain hails from Egypt on a papyrus scroll written about 1700 BC, as part of a document composed of 48 major injury cases, of which 28 noted were head injuries. This document, known as the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, details a wound that had opened both the skull and the brain, a never-been-seen before medical analysis. Interestingly enough, the medic performing the examination mentioned pulsations of the brain itself; we now understand this as a reference to the pulse of the heart. According to Dr. Eric Chuder at the University of Washington at Seattle, ancient Egyptians did not recognize the importance of the brain’s functionality; in preparing the deceased for mummification, organs were extracted from the body. While the heart and other organs were removed and stored in jars close to the body or replaced back into the body itself, the brain was thrown away. It wasn’t until developments in the time Classical Greece and Rome that the brain began to gain recognition as a vital organ.

History of the Heart

The heart has been an object of scientists’ affection for centuries. Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, declared, even glorified, the heart as human being’s most prized and necessary organ controlling all functions of the body as well as thought and emotion; Ancient Egyptians regarded the heart as the center of all life. Unlike the brain, early understandings of the heart put this particular organ on a pedestal from both scientific and spiritual angles, figuratively and quite literally.

Drawn symbols of the heart similar to what we identify with today can be traced back to the Ice Age when Cro-Magnon hunters 10000 to 8000 BC first began using the shape.

In Ancient Aztec culture, communities paid respect to the gods they believed to be responsible for their existence through human sacrifice, and in doing so would ask for abundant crops amongst other requests. An important aspect of this ritual was removing the sacrificee’s still-beating heart on an altar as part of a ceremonious offering. Countless religious texts including the Bible often reference the heart to note the intention behind particular decisions and personalities, both positive and negative.

History of the Brain-Heart Connection

Hundreds of years of research and observation of the heart and brain eventually led to the manifestation of knowledge establishing the existence of the brain/heart connection. Anatomically speaking, Aristotle believed that other organs, including the brain, served as cooling agents for the heart. As further research began to unravel over the course of history, the dominance of the proven facts behind the brain’s functions took precedence over the mysteries of the heart, whose importance, up until the last few decades, has been somewhat demoted and whittled down to its existence as a glorified pump. It has become common knowledge that the brain sends signals to the heart by way of the autonomic nervous system, causing the pattern of heartbeats to slow, flutter, pound, and the like; it is commonly mistaken that the heart simply intakes cues from the brain and a change in palpitation patterns ensues.

Recent Research

According to research conducted over the course of the last four decades at the HeartMath Institute, the brain-heart connection influences each moment in which we exist.

It has been proven more recently that the heart does indeed respond back to the signals sent from the brain, and sends its own organically created messages by way of what is known as the intrinsic cardiac nervous system, and composed of cells found in the brain.

You can think of the communication between the brain and the heart as being spoken in the same language using four distinct dialects; neurological, biochemical, biophysical, and energetic exchanges occur and create unique results. When the body and mind experience stressful conditions, the rate of our heartbeat increases. This, in addition to other effects, often maims our capacity to make well thought out decisions, retain pertinent information, and pay attention to our surroundings; in short, cognitive functions are grossly stunted when feelings of overwhelm and anxiety are experienced. Stress in its many forms takes a toll on all facets of our health and wellbeing.

Positive emotions and experiences have quite the opposite effect. When we experience joy, happiness, and the sense of freedom, for example, our heartbeat and thoughts become in tune with one another, bringing us into a state of homeostasis, or balance . When thoughts and the heartbeat are recognized as being in neutrality, it has been proven their rhythms are erratic in nature; when we have the opportunity to reach homeostasis is when everything functions in sync.

Brain-Heart Connection and Meditation

Phrases such as “speaking from the heart,” “crying your heart out,” and the like truly do hold merit beyond common word play. Learning to access our emotions in an intelligent and useful way is possible when we employ the tool of meditation, which, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, over 19 million Americans are engaged in a as a regular practice.

Meditation offers us a platform for awareness and connection within self, and brings us closer to a place of balance, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Unveiling these pathways to our personal fortification helps us to show up fully, whether we are called to stand up for ourselves, manifest with clear intention, or engage with unexplainable phenomenon.

Making sure our minds and our hearts are individually healthy is imperative for our wellness and longevity. It can be almost overwhelming to consider the independent power both of these organs posses in terms of the sustenance of life. Setting aside time for connecting our brains to our hearts can assist us in living at our highest level of intuition and vibration. Just as the heart beats in different patterns depending on neurologically transmitted signals, the energetic frequency at which we live reflects this in its tendency to ebb and flow.

A seated meditation practice can be useful for getting in touch and finding congruency between the body’s natural metronomes: the brain, the heart, and the breath. In a place of conscious, engaged centeredness, you are able to lay down the tracks on which your emotional resilience, which the HeartMath Institute defines as, “the capacity to prepare for, recover from and adapt in the face of stress, adversity, trauma or challenge”, can travel with ease when faced with any kind of interruption inflicted upon the brain and the heart.

How to Practice Your Own Brain-Heart Connection Meditation

  • Prepare yourself for seated meditation: If you are new to the practice of mindfulness and sitting, make sure you are comfortable and prepared.
  • Find a guide that is right for you: HeartMath Institute offers a technique called the Quick Coherence Technique, a three-step process focusing on attention, breathing, and feeling.
  • Be experimental: If a seated meditation practice is not your cup of matcha, an invigorating yoga practice focused on the flow of these same energies can also help to bring you into greater connection within.
  • Journal about your results and revelations: Being able to look back on your journey can be a method of inspiring from within, no matter what kind of practice you are focusing your energy on.
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