Institute of HeartMath Newsletter
Researchers Make Connection Between Brain and Emotions

Researchers Make Connection Between Brain and Emotions

(Editor’s note: This IHM newsletter article highlights certain aspects of doctoral candidate Sonya Kim’s comprehensive study, Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback and Executive Functioning in Individuals with Chronic Traumatic Brain Injury. These highlights primarily relate to heart rate variability – a longtime, key area of research at the Institute of HeartMath – HeartMath’s emWave Desktop for Mac and PC and IHM’s extensive research into the psychophysiological influence of human emotions. Click the link for Kim’s study to obtain the comprehensive study document, including the methodology used, results and future implications.)

A recent study involving people with moderate to severe brain injuries and for which the primary training tool was HeartMath’s emWave® Desktop provided further evidence of the importance of heart rate variability monitoring and training as well as the intimate connection between the human brain and emotions. The study raised the possibility that such individuals could be trained to regulate emotions and think more clearly.

The connection between the brain and emotions "could be used to train individuals with brain injury to better self-regulate their behavior and thereby control disinhibition and impulsivity," according to the study, Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback and Executive Functioning in Individuals with Chronic Traumatic Brain Injury. The study was conducted by Sonya Kim for her Ph.D. dissertation at Yeshiva University in New York City.

The premise of the study, whose participants had lived with severe brain injuries for an average of 24 years, was that "the brain and emotions meet in the body. Specifically, cognitive factors and emotions reciprocally influence each other negatively and positively."

The Institute of HeartMath’s own extensive research has demonstrated that emotions influence not only cognitive processes, but other physiological processes as well. (Read a 1995 article published in the American Journal of Cardiology about the HeartMath study, The Effects of Emotions on Short-Term Power Spectrum Analysis of Heart Rate Variability.)

There were 13 participants in Kim’s study, all of whom were in a community-based structured day program in New York City that provides long-term rehabilitation services for individuals with severe brain injuries and who are past the post-acute phase of rehabilitation.

Heart Rate Variability Although neither functional improvements nor improvements in neuropsychological testing were observed during the research, Kim wrote in the study abstract that heart rate variability (HRV) training holds promise as "an effective neuropsychological tool that can offer guidance on how to assess and treat behavior." (HRV refers to the variation in time between heartbeats.) Researchers employed HRV biofeedback methods and training to help participants "regulate their emotions through psychophysiological processes in order to think clearly."

Kim explained that previous research has shown that self-regulation "is a significant deficit in individuals with brain injuries" and that it, along with other executive functions such as dealing with unexpected or novel situations, represents "a key impediment to their reentry into social life." HeartMath also has conducted research to identify effective interventions for people with traumatic brain injuries (TBI).

The brain-injury study’s HRV biofeedback and training, which were aimed at helping participants "regulate their emotions through psychophysiological processes in order to think clearly," were central to the research. Kim explained in the final study document that previous research has shown key functions of the brain require the help of the cardiovascular system, including heart rate variability, just as the cardiovascular system is able to perform particular actions with support and biofeedback from the brain.

"These individuals (with TBI) have difficulty meeting unexpected or novel situations calmly," Kim wrote. "No matter what the challenge is – for example, making travel arrangements, handling money, or arguing with a friend – the individual with a brain injury struggles to respond in a focused way. According to the profession, inner calm and orderly thinking are essential to solving problems, and inner calm must be present before mental clarity can be achieved."

emWave Desktop Driven by its own research, which has shown that calm, or balanced emotions pave the way toward improved mental clarity, focus and decision-making, HeartMath has spent many years developing specialized techniques and technology to help people achieve this. The emWave Desktop and these techniques, some of which you can review at HeartMath Tools for Well-Being, were designed by scientists to teach individuals of all ages to manage their emotional responses and, if necessary, to actually change their emotional response patterns. For most people, learning these techniques is a simple process, and applying them in stressful or challenging situations requires only a few minutes. Most people have found that daily practice helps build the energy to manage crises in the moment and the resilience to recover quickly and be ready for future challenges.

Incoherence vs. Coherence These techniques and technology also have proven highly effective in achieving a state known as coherence, which is an optimal psychophysiological state in which we are mentally, physically and emotionally balanced, or in sync. All of the body’s processes are able to function at a high level of proficiency when we are coherent.

Kim noted in her written assessment of the study that the research provided evidence that the participants with severe brain injuries could "learn new techniques, respond to biofeedback and greatly increase coherence in heart rate variability."