Let Your Heart Talk to Your Brain
Did you know that the heart contains a brain in its own right? What do researchers mean when they talk about heart-brain interactions? Why is it important to you?
Researchers at the Institute of HeartMath and other organizations have shown that the human heart, in addition to its other functions, actually possesses the equivalent of its own brain, called the heart brain, which interacts and communicates with the head brain.
When I first heard about this, it intuitively made sense. Then as I delved into the research, it really confirmed what I have felt for a long time: that the heart has its own way of knowing.
Until recently, scientists assumed and most of us were taught that it was only the brain that sent information and issued commands to the heart, but now we know that it works both ways. The heart and head communicate via a number of pathways. Between them they continually exchange critical information that influences how the body functions.
Dr. J. Andrew Armour first introduced the term heart brain in 1991. Armour showed that the heart’s complex intrinsic nervous system qualified as a “little brain.” This heart brain, explains Science of the Heart, published by Institute of HeartMath, “is an intricate network of several types of neurons, neurotransmitters, proteins and support cells, like those found in the brain proper. 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).” Its elaborate circuitry enables it to act independently of the cranial brain – to learn, remember, and even feel and sense.
Next – Heart-Brain Communication Pathways
Heart-Brain Communication Pathways Diagram
The diagram above shows the neural communication pathways between the heart and the brain. The heart’s intrinsic nervous system consists of ganglia, which contain local circuit neurons of several types, and sensory neurites, which are distributed throughout the heart. The intrinsic ganglia process and integrate inflowing information from the extrinsic nervous system and from the sensory neurites within the heart. The extrinsic cardiac ganglia, located in the thoracic cavity, have direct connections to organs such as the lungs and esophagus and are also indirectly connected via the spinal cord to many other organs, including the skin and arteries. The “afferent” (flowing to the brain) parasympathetic information travels from the heart to the brain through the vagus nerve to the medulla, after passing through the nodose ganglion. The sympathetic afferent nerves first connect to the extrinsic cardiac ganglia (also a processing center), then to the dorsal root ganglion and the spinal cord. Once afferent signals reach the medulla, they travel to the subcortical areas (thalamus, amygdala, etc.) and then to the cortical areas.
“Communication along all these conduits significantly affects the brain’s activity,” Science of the Heart says. “Moreover, research shows that messages the heart sends the brain can also affect performance.”
Coming Up – Heart Coherence
One important way the heart can speak to and influence the brain is when the heart is coherent – generating a stable, sine-wavelike pattern in its rhythms. When the heart is coherent, the body, including the brain, begins to experience all sorts of benefits, among them greater mental clarity and intuitive ability, including better decision-making.
Although the heart and brain are in constant communication, each of us also has the capacity to consciously and intentionally direct our heart to communicate to the brain and body in beneficial ways.
When we intentionally experience sincere positive emotions, such as caring, compassion or appreciation for someone or something, the heart processes these emotions and the heart’s rhythm becomes more coherent and harmonious. The heart then sends this harmonious information throughout the entire body via the processes mentioned above– neurologically, biochemically, biophysically and energetically.
We’ve all had the experience of feeling the uplifting and harmonizing effects of sincere positive emotions. Now that we understand why, we can create those experiences more of the time. I often use one simple tool, called the Quick Coherence® technique, to shift into a positive feeling and coherent heart rhythm in less than a minute. It can take a little practice, but it gets easier and quicker the more you do it.
Up Next – The Quick Coherence Technique
- Heart Focus: Shift your attention to the area of the heart and breathe slowly and deeply.
- Heart Breathing: Keep your focus in the heart by gently breathing – five seconds in and five seconds out – through your heart. Do this two or three times.
- Heart Feeling: Activate and sustain a genuine feeling of appreciation or care for someone or something in your life. Focus on the good heart feeling as you continue to breathe through the area of your heart.
For a slide presentation and downloadable audio of Quick Coherence Technique (MP3) Click here
You can learn more about the heart brain, heart-brain interactions and the implications for personal performance, health, well-being and more on IHM’s web site in the Science of the Heart 70 page e-book (free).
Neurocardiology: Anatomical and Functional Principles e-book by J. Andrew Armour, M.D., Ph.D. An in-depth technical monograph written primarily for medical professionals, students, and researchers with a background in cardiology, neuroanatomy or neurophysiology. Click to purchase.