Some of today’s most far-reaching findings in neuroscience are coming from the Institute of HeartMath (IHM), an organization that develops tools and technologies to help people self-regulate their emotions and behaviors. One visionary in this quest is Rollin McCraty, Ph.D., IHM’s executive vice president and director of research. Studies led by Dr. McCraty and his associates have greatly advanced our understanding of the interplay between the heart and the brain…and among the hearts of people worldwide.
Dr. McCraty’s path to IHM was hardly a straight line, but along the way he added several impressive achievements to his resume. After receiving advanced training in electrical systems engineering, he worked as a field engineer at Motorola. In 1989 he formed his own electrostatics company (studying the science of stationary electric charges), which he took from a start-up in a garage to a multimillion-dollar company within three years. A key part of this success story was his development of a new technology that revolutionized electrostatic problem solving. It’s still used by most technology companies today.
In a dramatic change of focus, Dr. McCraty then devoted his energies to a company that introduced the health benefits of spirulina to the Western world. After a front-page news story on spirulina appeared in the early 1980s, sales took off and he had a $20 million business. Dr. McCraty’s goal was to make spirulina a global food source to help feed the masses in countries with endemic malnutrition. He even built a demonstration showing how it could be grown in the middle of a desert, but politics kept getting in the way. “It popped my idealism bubble,” he recalls about this frustrating time. “I came to the deep understanding that the major problems facing our planet were going to require a huge shift in human consciousness.”
As his own consciousness was shifting, a fortuitous meeting opened the door to Dr. McCraty’s future of scientific breakthroughs. At a party he met Doc Childre, who had founded HeartMath in 1991, and there was an instant connection between the two. “Here’s something where I can actually affect people’s lives, help lift consciousness, and really make a difference,” he remembers thinking after first hearing about HeartMath.
The Heart Is Not Just a Metaphor for Positive Emotions
At IHM, Dr. McCraty and his associates have accumulated compelling evidence showing that the rhythms of the heart, defined as heart rate variability (HRV)—a term coined by IHM Scientific Advisory Board member Donald Singer, M.D.—do much more than keep blood in circulation. HRV tends to be erratic and disordered during times of stress, which results in transmission of signals from the heart to the brain that inhibit our ability to think clearly and make effective decisions. During positive emotional states, however, there is a smooth and harmonious pattern in heart rhythms (known as coherence).
Giving credence to these findings was the landmark work of Karl Pribram, M.D., considered by many to be the father of modern cognitive neuroscience. Dr. Pribram helped introduce the idea that the brain at a functional level is a system that recognizes and stores patterns of cognitive and emotional experiences. Since the heart is a primary source of rhythmic patterns in the body, claims Dr. Pribram, it is therefore a primary player in our emotional experience. “Solid theory from one of the top neuroscientists in the world shows that our heart is not just a metaphor in our emotional experience,” says Dr. McCraty. “The brain is interpreting the patterns in the heart, and we [at IHM] were showing that different emotions are reflected in different patterns in the heart rhythm.”
More support for this theory came from leading neurocardiologist J. Andrew Armour, M.D., Ph.D., whose articles in high-level academic publications stated that the heart basically has its own intrinsic brain. “We now know that the heart is sending more information to the brain than the other way around,” concurs Dr. McCraty.
Researchers at IHM have continued developing techniques for shifting erratic HRV patterns to more coherent ones that lead to a more positive emotional state. They have demonstrated clinically that coherent heart rhythms improve overall cognitive functioning, decision making, and emotional stability.
The Heart as “Switchboard” Connecting Us All
Ongoing IHM research on intuition and the heart may further elevate the heart’s status. “These studies show that the heart is responding to things even before the brain does,” says Dr. McCraty. The notion of heart intuition is not just an “out-there” theory; it is well supported by rigorous physiological data from a large analysis of 20 studies.
Yet even this “talent” of the heart may be only the tip of the iceberg. The theory that hearts can communicate with each other and combine forces is being given serious attention. “The heart is much more than just physical,” notes Dr. McCraty. “We also have the energetic heart. We’re suggesting that the energetic heart is the primary communications switchboard.” People may indeed be connected to each other in a way similar to how cellphones exchange signals.
This topic is of special interest to me due to an experience I had years ago when I felt a wave of anxiety at the exact moment (I would learn later) when my mother was having a stroke 2,500 miles away. Dr. McCraty explained it to me not as coincidence but as picking up a signal: “A lot of studies show that what we are attuned to is what we are emotionally bonded or connected to, what is emotionally relevant and important to us. This bonding tunes us to a particular frequency. We create resonant frequencies to pick out the waves.” In effect, this connection between people works like radio transmitters and wifi, and these signals are around us in space all the time. Due to my emotional connection, Dr. McCraty said, I may have been especially attuned to my mother’s signals.
Dr. McCraty adds that Earth’s own magnetic field might be aiding this transmission of signals between people. “The earth’s magnetic field is a carrier wave of biologically relevant information,” he says. “This is what connects us all. It’s also part of the intuition: how a mom knows her son or daughter is distressed on the other side of the planet. Something has to be conveying that information, which often seems to happen almost instantaneously. My hypothesis is that this is literally the magnetic field of the earth, and there is a fair amount of support on that.”
A Tidal Wave of Kindness
In the fall of 2013, the IHM launched the Global Coherence Initiative. The ambitious goals of this campaign are unprecedented: to quantify the impact of human emotion on the earth’s electromagnetic field and tip the global equation toward greater peace. While this may sound like a utopian fantasy, Dr. McCraty points out that science once again supports this possibility. “If the earth’s fields are a carrier, we are all coupled to this field, all the signals are out there,” he says. “So every emotion we experience is coupled to that field. This creates a global humanity field, if you will.” According to Dr. McCraty, this field is continually fed by our feelings, both positive and negative. The goal is to shift the balance toward the positive. “Any time we’re putting out love and kindness, that energy is not wasted,” he adds.
Current IHM research demonstrating the interconnectedness between people has Dr. McCraty very excited. Two studies going on in northern California and Saudi Arabia are monitoring HRV 24/7 to help quantify the interconnectivity between people and how it is affected by nervous system dynamics, the earth’s magnetic fields, solar flares, and even radio frequencies. Meanwhile, IHM continues helping people achieve coherence in their lives through training programs as well as products that facilitate self-regulation of emotions. It also has a program teaching preschoolers how to self-regulate that has improved both learning and motor skills.
Rollin McCraty and IHM may be providing one of our most important portals into a better future.
Bringing Hearts and Minds Together Across the Globe
Imagine a world where our hearts and minds are in a consistent state of synergy. Here’s an overview of how the Institute of HeartMath leads the way toward this harmony.