Recently a friend of the JREF emailed us with a question about a product being sold by a non-profit corporation based in Boulder Creek, California. The non-profit’s name is The Institute of HeartMath, and by chance I actually worked with this company a few years back when I was working with a Chinese software developer in Beijing, China. I have first-hand experience with the folks at HeartMath and let me start by saying that they are not charlatans in my opinion. These people really believe in their mission and what they call the ‘science’ behind it. Unfortunately, during my time with them it didn’t appear that critical thinking is a core component of their philosophy and the science isn't exactly something worth staking your life on. That said, the message from HeartMath is certainly a positive one.
A Little Background on HeartMath
The founder of HeartMath is a guy by the name of Doc Childre (who is not a doctor) and his philosophy is basically that the heart is at the center of the human experience and the heart as an organ is much more interactive and important in our lives than just being a muscle that pumps blood around our bodies. He founded The Institute of HeartMath (IHM) in 1991 and as his website says, IMH’s HeartMath System “entails practical, heart-based tools and technologies that people of all ages and walks of life can use to enhance health, performance and well-being. “ Frankly I’m not sure why a ‘heart-based’ tool would help improve performance or enhance overall health.
My Relationship with HeartMath
During my brief interaction with HeartMath the basic premise of their technology revolved around something called Heart Rate Variability (HRV). HRV, in fact, is a real scientifically researched phenomenon that measures the variability in the R portion of the QRST wave of a typical heartbeat. Basically, over time, even with a regular heartbeat there is variability between the beats. The more variability, the healthier the heart (this is a very boiled-down view of this). Reduced HRV has been shown to be a predictor of death after heart attacks, so doctors know to monitor patients with less HRV more carefully when they are recovering from MI (Myocardial Infarction) or open heart surgery.
So far, so good, but what HeartMath has done has taken the concept of HRV and said that it ties into emotional health in a way that can affect performance, happiness, and stress in a profound way. When I visited HeartMath’s offices in Boulder Creek (it’s actually a campus with housing) I had their researcher, Rollin McCraty, PhD, give myself and a colleague a presentation on the HRV and HeartMath’s derivative state of well-being called ‘Coherence’. During this presentation McCraty gave an overview of HRV and showed some psychological testing materials and videos (such as the famous Gorilla/Basketball video) and told us about the research he was doing into the heart as a very special organ that regulates our mental health and well-being far beyond what current science understands. I started to feel uncomfortable when McCraty showed us data that suggested the heart (as an organ) was capable of pre-cognition. I talked with my colleague after the presentation and pointed out to him that the research at HeartMath appeared to have the tail wagging the dog, which is to say that they were not doing research to see what the result was, they were starting with a result and trying to conduct research to prove the result they already believed in, which is that the heart is an organ that has powers beyond anything we can measure with modern technology.
The product that caught our attention is one that is similar to a HeartMath product I have in my office which is basically a heart rate variability monitor. The software that comes with the device graphs HRV in such a way that it is displayed on the screen. IHM claims that a person can relieve stress and center their heart and mind in such a way that their HRV will achieve what they call ‘Coherence’. This produces a wave on the screen that looks a lot like a sine wave. There are relaxation techniques that are supposed to allow you to achieve this coherence, IMH claims will improve your mental abilities, performance, mental acuity, and help you to get in touch with your heart. Unfortunately it didn’t take long for us to figure out that a ‘coherence’ pattern could be achieved very easily by simply doing regular deep breathing, thus producing a sine-wave type pattern that in my estimation is produced simply by what’s called sinus arrhythmia (a normal subtle change in the heart rate due to the pressure change in the chest while breathing).
This product, called the emWave Personal Stress Reliever sells for $199 and ostensibly tells you when your HRV achieves a level of coherence. The problem I see with this product is that there’s no scientific consensus that ‘coherence’ does anything useful or that achieving it through this product has any beneficial effect at all. In my experience those who used the product and claimed success fell well within the realm of the placebo effect. For $199, I would suggest that folks simply practice deep breathing relaxation and save the money, but ultimately you should have a look at the HeartMath website and decide for yourself. I for one am deeply concerned about the reality of such products. The basic premise and mission of IHM seems to be altruistic and positive in that they want people to be emotionally in touch, happy, and content, but the science behind their products seems suspect.
When I attended a HeartMath educational session at a University in the Bay Area run by one of their Cardiologists, I put a few questions to the Cardiologist about the premise behind the IHM’s technology. I said “as an MD, a man of science, how can you agree with the concept that the heart is an organ that can sense its surroundings and possibly even engage in precognition?” His answer to me was “There are so many things in science we haven’t learned yet, it’s just a matter of time for science to catch up to this.”
Certainly when one looks at HeartMath’s Scientific Advisory Board, it’s impressive. I’m not sure how all these MD’s can get on board with HeartMath’s premise, but maybe since I was at HeartMath’s campus (over 5 years ago) they have backed off of some of the more unusual claims they have about the heart. I would suggest that anyone looking into their products to be highly skeptical.