Hearts and Minds – The Art and Science of Delay
Our brains aren’t the only organ that influences our mental reactions and processes. Our hearts matter, too. Over more than two decades, to the surprise of many psychologists, Stephen Porges, a psychiatry professor and neuroscientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has repeatedly shown that heart rate variability — having a wide range of heart rate acceleration and deceleration — is a measure of good mental health in the same way low cholesterol is a measure of good physical health.
It is especially true of babies and children. As infants, we watch new visual stimuli longer and are less easily distracted when our heart rates are more variable. Young children with a resting heart rate of 80 are less likely to suffer emotional distress later in life if their heart rate varies in a wide band from 70 to 90 when they are surprised or scared than if it varies more narrowly from 75 to 85.
It isn’t the resting rate that matters, but how much the rate varies in response to stimulus. Children who have a wider range of instant heart response have a more efficient feedback system, and this increased efficiency helps them regulate their emotional state: their hearts speed up more when they are excited, and slow down more when they are calm.
Think of the heart as being like the engine and brakes of a car. If you are driving down a winding two-lane road in a car that doesn’t reliably accelerate or slow down, your travels are going to be unpleasant and stressful. If it gets dark or the weather turns bad, you might panic and overreact. But if you are confident that you can easily speed up to pass or slow down at a dangerous curve, you will be more secure about your maneuvers. You won’t necessarily gun the accelerator all the time, or slam on the brakes. But sometimes you will need a wide range of variation, maybe a burst of speed followed by several minutes at a calm and steady pace. A car’s superior performance will give you a lot of comfort during the drive.
When I first read that milliseconds-long reactions in our hearts affect longer-term responses in our brains, which is tantamount to saying how we react and make decisions, I was skeptical. Works from Stephen Porges, neuroscientist and leading proponent of the idea that high-speed responses in our vagal nerves, weren’t cited in the leading books on decision-making. The top decision-making researchers I interviewed hadn’t even heard of him. Yet numerous studies, by him and others, confirm the benefits of high heart rate variability, particularly for children. And low heart rate variability is bad — it is associated with higher levels of anger, hostility, stress, and anxiety. It is a counterintuitive result, but having a heart that can respond rapidly helps us delay gratification and remain calm, even in the face of great temptation or fear. Being fast in our heart helps our brain go slow later.
John Gottman, the scientist made famous in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink for his ability to assess marriages by watching couples for just a few minutes, learned about Porges’s theory and wanted to see how kids’ hearts responded to disapproval from their parents. Sure enough, he and his colleague Lynn Katz found that four- and five-year-olds who are better at quickly, and unconsciously, adjusting their heart rates in response to stressful interactions with their parents are better able to regulate their emotions later at age eight. Gottman and Katz didn’t observe the kids’ conscious reactions or behavior at all. Instead, they looked at what was going on inside the kids’ bodies and found that children are emotionally better off if they can tweak their heart rates in response to criticism from Mom and Dad.
Another group of researchers asked sixty-eight cohabiting heterosexual couples to sit on a sofa and talk about their relationships, sort of like the couples from the film When Harry Met Sally, except that their bodies were wired with electrodes connected to a four-channel bio-amplifier that continuously measured their heart rate responses. As they talked about their partner’s character and behavior and what it was like to be away from him or her, computers recorded millisecond-by-millisecond changes in their heart rates. Then, over the next three weeks, the couples kept detailed records of their interactions and how they felt about each other.
Although the results were complicated and differed by gender, the overall pattern was that both women and men reacted more favorably and recorded more positive interactions when their partner’s heart was more responsive. Somehow, people sensed what was happening inside their partner’s body. These results suggest that heart rate variability matters not only to our own emotional reactions but also to our partners’ reactions to us. Our hearts really do skip a beat when we’re in love.
References and Further Reading
Polyvagal Theory by Stephen W. Porges (W. W. Norton & Co., 2011)
The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin (University of Chicago Press, 1965)
Emotions and the Family by Richard A. Fabes (Haworth Press, 2002)
Ravi Dykema, How Your Nervous System Sabotages Your Ability to Relate: An Interview with Stephen Porges About His Polyvagal Theory, Nexus (March-April 2006)
Porges SW (1972). Heart rate variability and deceleration as indexes of reaction time. Journal of experimental psychology, 92 (1), 103-10 PMID: 5059178
Porges SW (1976). Peripheral and neurochemical parallels of psychopathology: a psychophysiological model relating autonomic imbalance to hyperactivity, psychopathy, and autism. Advances in child development and behavior, 11, 35-65 PMID: 11648
Walter GF, & Porges SW (1976). Heart rate and respiratory responses as a function of task difficulty: the use of discriminant analysis in the selection of psychologically sensitive physiological responses. Psychophysiology, 13 (6), 563-71 PMID: 996222
Porges SW, & Raskin DC (1969). Respiratory and heart rate components of attention. Journal of experimental psychology, 81 (3), 497-503 PMID: 5349054
Bradley M. Appelhans, & Linda J. Luecken (2006). Heart Rate Variability as an Index of Regulated Emotional Responding Review of General Psychology, 10 (3), 229-240 DOI: 10.1037/1089-26220.127.116.11