I had heard of HeartMath from a friend of mine, Jan, but it was during one of our long, rambling (exploratory) conversations, and it didn’t register as a specific thing. I heard a sort of new-age idea that I’d expect from her and didn’t give it much thought. I know Jan navigates the world through her feelings, and while it works well for her, it’s not the way I view the world.
As I continued my research to see what other folks were saying about burnout, I found a reference to The HeartMath Solution: The Institute of HeartMath’s Revolutionary Program for Engaging the Power of the Heart’s Intelligence and decided I needed to take a deeper look. The book that referred to it was The Joy of Burnout, a book that I’m sure Jan would like, because there’s a soft edge to the framing.
What I found was a mixture of science, pseudoscience, and ungrounded ideas that, though they may work, may be more based on hope and placebo than anything real. That being said, it’s worth looking through the non-science to get to the key value that people with more analytical minds might be at first inclined to ignore.
The simple biological fact is that the heart has sufficient neural structures to be considered a brain of its own. There are enough neurons to qualify for the category. We know that the heart starts beating before the fetus’ brain is developed. We further know that sometimes the brain will communicate to the body to be on alert, and the heart will take a more gentle and relaxed view.
That’s all good, solid science. It gets tricky when we evaluate where emotions come from. There’s a lot of work to understand where emotions come from, and that effort is focused on the brain, not the heart. How Emotions are Made challenges the way others view the formation of emotions but remains firmly fixed in the development of emotions in the brain. Emotion and Adaptation is another example of research that is firmly founded on the brain being the seat of emotions. Even How Dogs Love Us uses fMRI scanning to try to decode if dogs do love us and, if so how.
It’s not that collective science can’t be wrong. If we didn’t accept that, then we’d still be trying to explain how the planets move if Earth is at the center of the Solar System. It’s that the plausibility is low that such detailed and painstaking analysis have missed things so cleanly.
Listen to Your Heart
The problem, it seems, is that people from many cultures have always associated feelings with the heart. In fact, we say “heartfelt” to indicate a trueness or depth in feelings. The ancient Egyptians used to believe the brain wasn’t useful matter and threw it away instead of preserving it. Of course, no one would dispute the fact that our rational, logical, planning, thinking comes from our brains today – but that wasn’t what was believed a few centuries ago. To get to the heart of a matter has meant to get to its core. It is woven into the very way that we communicate, and those tentacles aren’t very easy to untangle.
So, we speak of listening to our heart and what it’s telling us, but it seems to be more metaphorical than physical. Our heart is an amazing biological pump, and it has its own intelligence. But, in terms of research demonstrating that our heart is the root of our emotions, the evidence seems to be that it doesn’t.
Before the heart transplant, Bill loved walks in the woods. After, he’s more interested in the feeling of waves splashing at his feet. Those are the kind of stories you might expect if the feelings came with the heart. It’s true that there are neurological connections between the heart and brain that surgeons do not yet know how to restore, so perhaps that is the missing piece.
For that to hold true, it would mean that, after a heart transplant, the recipient should feel no emotion. They shouldn’t be able to love or to connect emotionally with another human. Both anecdotally from others and in my own experience, this just isn’t the case. The emotions don’t seem to transfer with the heart when it’s moved from one patient to another.
Does that mean that everything in The HeartMath Solution should be ignored? No, it means that, instead of looking at the material as literal truth, we should view the material as a useful tool for living a happier life.
The awareness and management of emotions has a profound impact on our lives. Daniel Goleman’s research in Emotional Intelligence makes that clear. Our success in life is often not about the IQ but instead about the emotional quotient. Plenty of resources today are focused on emotional intelligence and how to develop it or various aspects of it.
Whether emotions come from our heart or brain doesn’t matter. What matters is that, by learning to better control our emotions, we’ll live a happier and more productive life.
One of the techniques that HeartMath teaches is to “Freeze Frame.” There are five steps to the technique:
- Recognize the need for Freeze Frame because of a stressful feeling.
- Shift your focus away from the stressful thoughts.
- Recall a positive experience and re-experience it.
- Ask yourself what would be a better response to the situation than stress.
- Listen to the answer.
I intentionally edited out the heart-related focus to boil the exercise down into the key steps. This technique is sound and is like some of the techniques recommended in Hardwiring Happiness. It’s a process of stepping out of the reaction to evaluate what’s happening in the moment and choose better responses. In the middle is an attempt to re-center around a positive and presumably safe situation to try to minimize the impact of fear on the decision-making process.
The trick to the technique is being able to recognize when you need to use it in the first place.
One of the concepts that reoccurs in my reading is detachment from outcomes. That is, we should become less concerned with the outcomes and be more focused on our behaviors. While this is easy to say, it’s not so easy to do. Buddhists believe that it is our attachment that causes our suffering in this world, and learning to become detached can help to mitigate or limit our suffering. (See The Happiness Hypothesis for more about detachment.)
The language HeartMath uses for detachment is “avoiding wasting energy.” It also includes taking a step back from the problem. Sometimes it looks like seeing yourself like an outside observer would. These are all variations on the theme of not becoming so engrossed in your experience that you forget that it’s just one experience – and one that you can’t control. (See Compelled to Control for more about our lack of control.)
Plugging the Holes
Where, in Extinguish Burnout, we speak about a bathtub, HeartMath speaks about a bucket and plugging the holes before worrying too much about how you fill the bucket. The analogy is solid. You need to find those places that are draining you– the holes – and plug them, so that you’re not pouring in when nothing will stay. The holes, for HeartMath, are small indulgences in emotions like worry, guilt, and judgement. These emotions represent small drains on our psychic energy, and, collectively, they can have a big impact on our overall well-being. (You can find more about acceptance in How to Be an Adult in Relationships – it’s the opposite of judgement.)
If you’ve seen late-night TV, you may have seen a sealant that you can spray on a screen to make it waterproof. That’s not the point. The point is that it is designed to allow you make things leak-proof again. One emotion that can help stop the leakage in your world is gratitude. That is, being grateful for what you have and where you are minimizes the ability for us to slip into negative patterns of thinking. (You can find more about gratitude in Dare to Lead.)
“If You Practice Sincerely”
Occasionally, you’ll stumble across a passage in a book that you have to read again, or you wonder if you’re reading it right. In HeartMath, one of those quotes was, “As with the other HeartMath Solution tools and techniques, if you practice sincerely, a perspective shift will naturally occur.” On the surface, the comment seems harmless enough. However, as you dig deeper, you can unravel the problem with the statement. You evaluate it from the point of view that a perspective shift may not occur – for whatever reason. The problem is, if this happens, you necessarily create a situation where the person blames themselves, because they’re not practicing sincerely.
It’s a subtle form of shame that pushes the blame from the system, approach, or technique and lays the burden on the person. It happens all the time, and it’s one of the biggest bucket holes of them all. If you would like to know more, we talk about the difference between shame and guilt in Kin-to-Kid Connection: Understanding Shame and Guilt.
Another of the techniques taught in the book is “Cut-Thru.” It’s designed to help us rewire our past memories into more positive things. (You might look at Hardwiring Happiness for an alternative view.) The process is:
- Be aware of our feelings.
- Breathe and take space.
- View the situation from another person’s point of view.
- Relax and rest in the moment.
- Be grateful and appreciative of the situation.
- Ask yourself what the best response to the situation is.
As with Freeze Frame, I’ve reworded the language a bit to minimize the specific heart-focus.
Heart of the Matter
While I disagree on some of the technical details that are presented in HeartMath, there are some very sound principles and techniques that are shared. Perhaps they’re right about the influence of electromagnetic fields emanating from our hearts, and I’m just not accepting enough of the things I can’t verify. In either case, you can read The HeartMath Solution yourself and make up your own mind.