Scientific Potentials of HRV

Despite all the amazing and necessary things the heart performs everyday to keep people alive and healthy, the connection between the heart and not only human health but human happiness and emotional well-being is only now under exploration by scientists, researchers and practitioners from a wide assortment of disciplinary backgrounds.

HRV, or heart rate variability, is a powerful lens into human health and wellness. Heart rate measures the speed at which a heart “beats.” This is often expressed in a familiar metric, beats per minute, or BPM. Though “beat” is not quite the right word for it, the measurement is of the speed at which the heart cycles through QRS complexes.

One “beat,” more commonly referred to in the scientific literature as NN or RR intervals, and better understood as a two part process bookended by electrical impulses that govern the flow of blood in and out of the heart, is usually expressed in milliseconds and measures the time in between one “beat” and the “beat” that preceded it. The variability of this little number, this interval, contains multitudes of information about an individual’s health, including mental health and emotional wellbeing.

As introduced in an earlier post, the heart rate has variability because two branches of the autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves, act to accelerate and decelerate heart rate. For the duration of the life of a human heart, these two nerves are in constant interaction to maintain cardiovascular activity and regulate the reactions of people to changing environmental stimuli.

In other words, as the spaces we find ourselves in change, the internal interactions of people’s nervous systems function to regulate the body and manage our behaviour in relation to changing stimuli. To this point, HRV has been of great interest to the medical and health and wellness communities, helping doctors, researchers and practitioners assess cardiovascular health, risks for diabetes, and rehabilitation and fitness optimization.

HRV has also been useful in diagnosing autism in children. More recently, HRV has been shown to accurately reflect stress and anxiety, as well as offer a reliable correlation on the quality of sleep. The rhythms of the heart are barely perceptible, and yet there are multitudes and these rhythms are discrete. Studies have correlated specific patterns with specific emotional states, stress levels, mood, and a variety of mental health diagnoses. 

At EiQ, we draw from recent peer-reviewed literature to push deeper into the insights about mental and emotional health embedded in the rhythms of the heart. Our goal is to tap this wellspring of information to generate new data, tools, and insights that help people to understand their embodied emotional experiences.

Read the conclusion of this post and much more on our Medium page.

Emotional Self-alienation

How well do you really know your own emotions? Can you accurately describe when you are feeling depressed? Anxious? Overjoyed? What about some of the reasons you might be feeling this way?

It’s okay if you’re unsure. Most people are relatively unfamiliar with their emotions. In our emotion-phobic culture, we are often taught how to avoid our feelings instead of how to address them. What’s more, we are told we are supposed to have total influence over our emotions when the science says that emotions are driven by a whole host of non-conscious physiological forces.

Control your emotions! Emotions are for weak people. Get over it!

Simply learning a bit about emotions can make people feel much more comfortable with them. After all, no one teaches us the difference between categories of emotions. For example, core emotions, like anger, sadness, fear, disgust, joy, excitement, anxiety, guilt, and shame are not dictated purely by cognate processes but by physiological responses to environmental stimuli.

This is why emotion researchers consider the body central to the construction of the modern self. Interpretive theorist Paul Ricoeur (1992), for example, remarks that while personal identity is often perceived differently across time, the body is a resilient part of us and thus reflects a strong link to a deeper notion of identity or self.

According to Ricoeur, as well as a whole host of thinkers at the intersections of phenomenology and cognitive psychology, understanding the body is essential to understanding how we feel. Yet thanks to the problem of emotional self-alienation, getting to know one’s own body is rarely a simple task.

As philosopher Thomas Szanto (2017) points out, we are estranged from our own emotions to the extent by which we feel out of sync from the rhythms of our body. Such alienation extends into our relationships with others and society as a whole — this aggregates as experiences of burnout at work and a lot of excess psychological stress.

According to William James (1890:450), the founder of American psychology, your emotions are completely governed by your body’s responses. In essence, your body is your emotions.

Imagine you’re being pursued by a wasp. If you’re like most of us, fear and panic will take over your entire being, causing your heart to race, palms to sweat, and stomach to turn over. James highlighted these responses of your autonomic nervous system with the actual emotion of fear.

Read the conclusion of this post and much more on our Medium page.

Biometrics and the Body

When we are afraid the heart races, breathing becomes rapid, the mouth dries up, muscles tense, and palms become sweaty. We may feel anxious, stressed, panicked or nervous, but emotion recognition does not end here. Psychophysiology shows us that such changes are mediated by the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which operates the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions of the human body.

The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is a “quick response mobilizing system” responsible for “fight or flight” responses, which prepare the body to react to stresses such as threat or injury. It directs muscles to contract and heart rate to increase. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is a “more slowly activated dampening system” referred to as “rest and digest”, which controls functions of the body at rest. It helps maintain homeostasis by directing muscles to relax and heart rate to decrease. In conjunction, the two constitute what psychophysiologists refer to as the ANS.

Although both the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions drive opposing effects on the body, it is the balance of activity between the two that helps maintain an internal stable environment in the face of changing external stimuli and conditions. During an anxious experience for instance, the body will divert blood flow from parasympathetic nerve functions (such as digestion) to sympathetic nerve functions (such as muscle contraction and heavy breathing).

There is little people can do to consciously control their PNS, but there are factors (such as exercise and experience) that can help some people exert a level of control over the sympathetic responses. Certain emotional states affect this balance and can result in a wide variety of bodily reactions similar to the ones described in brackets above. Importantly, these bodily reactions can be monitored and measured through signals referred to as bio-signals.

All we can observe from the outside are the bodily reactions. Bio-sensors give us insights into how and why these reactions are occurring across the interplay between parasympathetic and sympathetic nerve functions. As a result, detection and analysis of the these involuntary, subconscious divisions of the body are becoming an increasingly important field for Human Computer Interaction (HCI) as the advantages of emotional recognition and machine learning become more apparent and achievable online and across everyday life.

Read the conclusion of this post and much more on our Medium page.