Saturday, March 26, 2011

#7 HRV Feedback is not Meditation

People exploring Heart Rate Variability Feedback (HRVF) often come to the incorrect conclusion that HRVF is “just meditation”.  As Llyod Bentsen said to Dan Quayle in the Vice Presidential Debates:  Senator I served with Jack Kennedy… I knew Jack Kennedy… Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine…Senator,  you’re no Jack Kennedy.

Saying that HRVF is “just meditation” short changes both HRVF and meditation.  In the mid 70’s I caught the wave when Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was touring the US and took a course in Transcendental Meditation (TM).  While I have my doubts that the mantra I was given was specifically chosen for me by the Mahrishi as promised, I still use it to this day. I have found TM to be a very useful tool for relaxation, and have practiced it regularly for decades.

The underlying physiology of meditation has been elucidated by the work of Herbert Bensen MD on what he calls the “Relaxation Response”.  The most important effect is an increase in the Parasympathetic (calming) to Sympathetic (arousing) nervous system ratio.    While the ratio is increased, the overall output of the autonomic nervous system is turned down. (There are contradictory findings on this fact which I believe can be explained by the pattern of breathing employed in the meditation.)  This can be demonstrated by meditating while using an HRV device to monitor your heart rate.

Typically what happens when you meditate while monitoring heart rate, is that there is a significant decrease in heart rate variability.  As the parasympathetic/sympathetic ratio increases, the individual relaxes and breathing becomes more shallow.  This causes HRV to decrease. This leads you to a state which is more relaxed, but not particularly “ready”.  It’s great for shutting down your mind before bed, but lousy if you are headed to a party where you want to be vivacious and scintillating. (My goal, not always realized.)

HRVF in contrast leads to a very different physiological and mental state.  While the ratio of Parasympathetic to Sympathetic nervous system output is increased as with meditation, the overall output of the autonomic nervous system is maintained or even increased.  You will see an increase in the variability of the heart rate.  And mentally you will be in a “Relaxed and Ready” state.  It is a fluid state where you can shift to quiet contemplation, or to socially engaged and dynamic.  For that reason it tends to be much more useful during the day when a person needs to get “balanced” before a demanding activity like a presentation.

Understanding the difference between HRVF and meditation illustrates why the picture above is after the big meeting- calming down and digesting the experience with meditation.
(As opposed to preparing for the meeting, when HRVF would be more useful.)

HRVF and meditation both lead to very useful but distinct physiological and mental states.  In an echo of Lloyd Bentsen:  I know meditation…meditation is a friend of mine…but HRVF is not meditation.

For readers interested in a contemporary view of meditation check out:  Buddha’s Brain:  the practical neuroscience of happiness, love and wisdom by Rick Hanson PhD.


  1. Dr. Chamberlin,

    It seems like you are using the acronym HRV to mean both heart rate variability and heart rate variability feedback. It is a bit confusing.

    Also, you say
    "When you meditate while monitoring your heart rate, you will see is a significant decrease in heart rate variability." Can you point me to a study that shows this?

    Thank you.

    ...Tim Huntley

  2. Point taken. Thanks.

    Rolin McCraty. The Coherent Heart. Institute of Heartmath 2006.

  3. Thanks very much. The referenced material looks interesting.

  4. Great and interesting comparison of relaxation and meditation w hrv training! I also think they have much in common that could be a separate post perhaps. As you know, there are many forms of meditations with many different effects, so hrv is more like some particular types.. offhand I'm thinking of the appreciation meditation in Buddhism also called the lovingkindness meditation. I find that a way to practice hrv without the equipment. It also has a distinct antidepressant effect I've noticed. Last thought, I'd love to see a post relating hrv to changing brainwave patterns which would no doubt be interesting given your medical background. Neurofeedback specifically trains people to alter brainwave patterns, yet this happens naturally on a regular basis. I'd love to hear your take on how hrv training relates to that. Keep up the good work! :)

  5. Thanks for the fascinating information - this explains why letting my mind wander off towards a relaxed, meditative state when using the StressEraser causes me to lose the coherent waves and the three "blocks" signals.