At the Heart of the Matter: The Heart


At the Heart of the Matter: The Heart

In our meditation classes for good reason we always include moments focusing upon the heart.  The following information will hopefully outline, all-be-it briefly, why.  In the Chinese tradition the heart plays the primary role in the body’s energy systems.  They have identified how the heart plays a key role in maintaining our health and well-being, they see it as much more than just a pump.

With the advent of neurocardiology there has been a real deepening of understanding about how the heart affects our overall health and well-being; this has enabled us to see beyond its purely mechanical role.  If we want to understand how we can do more to help our own health and well-being we need to expand our own knowledge by listening to what the neurocardiologists have to say.  When we add action, as in meditating, to what we have learned we will be able to not only help maintain and strengthen the health of our heart but also our whole body.

Briefly we will look at;

  • Neurocardiology
  • Sensory neurites
  • Cardiorespiratory Synchronization, Vagal Tone and Upward Spiral
  • Love, Gentleness and Kindness
  • Including research which has identified how meditation can have a positive effect upon these heart systems.
  • A little of what the Chinese Tradition says about the heart
  • What people in the classes have said about our Gentle Love/Loving Kindness Meditations

As you read through these notes maybe over a cup of tea and some biscuits, please don’t be put off by all the long sciency words (and boy do they like to use big unusual sounding words!), remember it applies to you!  They are describing what is happening within you both physically and emotionally in every moment of this day.

Touching on Neurocardiology:

Nearly 20 years ago, after extensive research one of the early pioneers in neurocardiology, Dr. J. Andrew Armour, introduced the concept of a functional "heart brain". His work revealed that the heart has a complex intrinsic nervous system that is sufficiently sophisticated to qualify as a "little brain" in its own right.

The heart's brain is an intricate network of several types of neurons, neurotransmitters, proteins and support cells like those found in the head brain. Its elaborate circuitry enables it to act independently of the brain systems in the head, to learn, remember, and even feel and sense.

Dr. Armour and Dr. Jeffrey Ardell in their book Neurocardiology provide a comprehensive overview of the function of the heart. In it Dr. Armour describes how the heart has its own intrinsic nervous system that operates and processes information independently of the brain or nervous system. It is this that allows a heart transplant to work. Normally, the heart communicates with the brain via nerve fibres running through the vagus nerve and the spinal column. In a heart transplant however these nerve connections do not reconnect for an extended period of time, if at all, however, the transplanted heart is able to function in its new host through the capacity of its intact, intrinsic nervous system.


  • Armour, J. A. (1991). Anatomy and function of the intrathoracic neurons regulating the mammalian heart. In: I. H. Zucker and J.P. Gilmore, eds. Reflex Control of the Circulation. Boca Raton, FL, CRC Press. 1-37.
  • Armour, J. A. and J. Ardell, Eds. (1994). Neurocardiology. New York, NY, Oxford University Press.

Going A Little Deeper: Sensory Neurites

Dr. David S. Goldstein, founder and director of the clinical neurocardiology section of the National Institutes of Health in the United States, explains how the heart possesses its own nervous system, with a network of 40,000 neurons called sensory neurites.  Important things to know about sensory neurites include,

  • They detect circulating hormones and neurochemicals and sense heart rate and blood pressure information.
  • The heart's nervous system translates hormonal, chemical, rate and pressure information into neurological impulses and sends them from the heart to the brain through several afferent (meaning, “flowing to the brain”) pathways.
  • Through these nerve pathways pain signals and other feeling sensations are sent to the brain.
  • These afferent nerve pathways enter the brain in an area called the medulla, located in the brain stem.
  • The signals have a regulatory role over many of the autonomic nervous system signals that flow out of the brain back to the heart, blood vessels and other glands and organs.
  • However, the signals also cascade up into the higher centres of the brain, where they influence perception, decision making and other cognitive processes.

Those interactions work "like a network of computers," Dr. R. Freudenberger, a member of the Lehigh Valley Heart Specialists in Pennsylvania says. "It's like the internet.  Different computers function together but they can also function completely separately. The heart gets signals from other computers, your brain, hormones that are secreted by your brain but it also has its own operating system inside the heart itself. We are just learning more about how that independent operating system works."

In addition he explains how heart deficiencies may also affect a person's mood. He states, "If your heart isn't working well you are much more likely to have depression and anxiety."

Meditative Practices have a Neurological Basis behind Them:

An article published online in the journal Brain and Behaviour described a study carried out by Judson Brewer and Kathleen Garrison, postdoctoral researchers in Yale’s Department of Psychiatry.  Their research investigated what happens in the brains of experienced meditators as compared to those of novice meditators when feeling the emotion of love.

Previous research has demonstrated that romantic love and drugs like cocaine trigger the same reward centres in the brain, selfless or unconditional love however deactivated these regions.  In the study, the researchers evoked feelings of selfless love in 20 experienced meditators and 26 novices by having them repeat the phrase “may all beings be happy” while their brains were being scanned.

The study found that the posterior cingulate cortex and precuneus (please see diagram below), areas that become active when we think about ourselves, were particularly deactivated in experienced meditators compared to novices when both thought of selfless love while in the scanner.  As stated previously studies have found that romantic love, particularly in its most intense early stages, activates reward centres in the brain. However, these reward centres were not seen to be activated during the love and kindness meditation that the subjects were asked to cultivate.

Brewer said, “This doesn’t mean that romantic love is a bad thing.  It just means it’s not necessarily perfect all the time.”  He went on to say, “In the West we look at this stuff (selfless love) and think it’s all holding hands and singing Kumbaya.  In reality, these meditative practices have a neurological basis behind them.”

He continued, “If you’re wondering where the reward is in being selfless, just reflect on how it feels when you see people out there helping others, or even when you hold the door for somebody.”

More specifically their study found,

  • Loving kindness practice initially relied on the silent repetition of phrases to generate the feeling of loving kindness, however as practice developed, the phrases were dropped and the focus was on the feeling itself.
  • Novices practice loving kindness had a greater reliance on inner speech (“may X be happy”), whereas meditators connected more with an embodied feeling of loving kindness.
  • Novices relied more on memory and emotional memory during loving kindness than meditators, and come back to memory when they found themselves mind wandering.
  • One interpretation of this finding is that when the mind wanders, meditators return to rely on the silent repetition of phrases, or to emotional processing or empathy, to reconnect them with the feeling of loving kindness.
  • Even with a smaller number of reported hours of loving kindness, meditators may practice loving kindness in a selfless manner as compared to novices based on their many hours spent practicing other forms of meditation from this tradition.
  • These findings suggest that loving kindness meditation involves a present-centred, selfless focus for meditators as compared to novices.


  • The Heart in Lingshu, Chapter 8, by Claude Larre and Elisabeth Rochet De La Vallée (1991). Published by Monkey Press.  ISBN: 1 872468 04 7
  • BOLD signal and functional connectivity associated with loving kindness meditation. By Kathleen A. Garrison, Dustin Scheinost, R. Todd Constable and Judson A. Brewer.


On To Cardiorespiratory Synchronization and Vagal Tone:

First it would be best to clarify what some of the things mentioned in the notes are;

  • Cognitive flexibilityis described as your mental ability to switch between thinking about two different concepts, and also how able you are to think about multiple concepts simultaneously.
  • Autonomic flexibility is the ability of the parasympathetic nervous system to adapt to changes in circumstance by changing your level of arousal, respiration, heart rate and attention. (Porges, 1995;Friedman and Thayer, 1998).
  • Cardiorespiratory synchronization is when your breathing not only modulates, but synchronizes the heart rate. (Important for all meditators and people with heart problems; and yes there has been research about the effects of meditation on cardiorespiratory synchronization, so look out for some relevant information appearing in some notes near you soon!)

and finally,

  • Vagal Tone relates to the activity of the vagus nerve which is part of the parasympathetic nervous system. The vagus nerve is actually made up of two cranial nerves that originate in the medulla in the brainstem.  They are connected to the viscera, the flash name for the internal organs of the body; specifically those within the chest such as the heart or lungs and the abdomen such as the liver, kidneys, pancreas or intestines, (I know some of you will be thinking, ‘aha the organs associated with the Chinese 5 Element Theory’). The vagus nerve is also known for wandering through the body, weaving through the abdomen and branching into other nerves that extend through the limbs and organs.

So such things as our respiratory health, circulatory health and digestive health are all closely tied to the activities of the vagus nerve.  For instance, it regulates the chemical levels in the digestive system so that your intestines can process your food and keep track of what types of nutrients are being taken in from that food.  (If you listen really, really carefully you can hear it going bleah, bleah, bleah after we’ve had some processed food or highly sugared soft drink!) For these reasons, better vagal tone is linked with better overall health.

Your baseline level of vagal tone refers to the level of activity your vagus nerve returns to after you have experienced a stimulating event.  Each individual person will have a different baseline level.  The higher your baseline level of vagal tone the more able you are to control your ability to stimulate or calm yourself. 

As a consequence you will be more able to develop your abilities to be attentive and focused; a consequence of which is that the parts of your brain systems associated with worry will be less likely to focus on those things which have worried you in the past (not forgetting amygdala reactions here).

  • It has been established through research that our autonomic flexibility, (as recorded by the level of Vagal Tone), promotes well-being and further gains in autonomic flexibility.
  • It helps people capitalize on social and emotional opportunities as they arise in daily life.
  • Individuals who have a high baseline level ofVagal Tone adapt well in a variety of different life experiences.
  • They demonstrate notable performances on a variety of measures of cognitive flexibility; these include working memory (from listening to people in the classes this is one that people are worrying about), directed and focused attention and the ability to subdue a dominant response (such as not responding angrily to someone else’s anger).
  • Such people also show fewer negative responses to stressful everyday life situations and have a greater ability to regulate their own behaviours.
  • Whereas in 2004 Dr. R. Hoehn-Saric of the John Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, established that decreased “autonomic flexibility” is found in anxiety disorders.

And how does meditation fit in to this?

In 2005 a piece of research by Dr. Dirk Cysarz and Dr. A. Bussing of the University of Witten/Herdecke, Germany, examined the effect of meditation on Vagal Tone.  They established that relaxation techniques, as in certain types of meditation, increase vagal tone.

Significantly those who are new to meditation and how it helps you, the researchers noted that the high degree of cardiorespiratory synchronization during meditation in unexperienced meditators suggests that the physiological impact of meditation do not require prior experience in meditation.

Furthermore in 2013 research led by Professor Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Bethany Kok of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences found that it is possible for a person to self-generate positive emotions in ways that make him or her physically healthier.

To study the bodily effects of up-regulating positive emotions, the researchers focused on vagal tone.   As people who have higher vagal tone tend to be better at regulating their emotions, the researchers speculated that having higher vagal tone might lead people to;

  • experience more positive emotions
  • which would then boost perceived positive social connections
  • having more social connections would in turn increase vagal tone
  • thereby improving physical health
  • thus creating an “upward spiral”.

To see whether people might be able to harness this ‘upward spiral’ to steer themselves toward better health, Kok, Fredrickson, and their colleagues conducted a longitudinal field experiment.  For two months, half of the study participants were randomly assigned to attend a 6-week loving-kindness meditation course in which they learned how to cultivate positive feelings of love, compassion, and goodwill toward themselves and others. They were asked to practice meditation at home, but how often they meditated was up to them. The other half of the participants remained on a waiting list for the course.  Both groups were examined with regard to their vagal tone at the beginning and compared vagal tone with the intervention group and the control group, the ‘waiting list’ group.

The research found the meditation significantly increased vagal tone.  The researchers also found the effect was increased through social connections. With increased social connections came increased vagal tone thus creating the upward spiral. Even those with greater vagal tone in the beginning of the study after undergoing the meditation showed increases in the vagal tone and applying beneficial changes within their social connections.


  • Social Connections Drive the ‘Upward Spiral’ of Positive Emotions and Health by Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Bethany Kok of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences. May 9, 2013

Social Connections Drive the ‘Upward Spiral’ of Positive Emotions and Health


  • Cardiorespiratory Synchronization during Zen Meditation by Dirk Cysarz and Arndt Bussing European Journal of Applied Physiology Springer-Verlag 2005, 10.1007/s00421-005-1379-3


  • Hoehn-Saric R, Mcleod DR, Funderburk F, Kowalski P. Somatic symptoms and physiologic responses in generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder: An ambulatory monitor study. Arch Gen Psychiatry 2004;61:913-21.
  • Porges SW. Orienting in a defensive world: Mammalian modifications of our evolutionary heritage. A polyvagal theory.1995;32(4):301–318.

Friedman BH, Thayer JF. Anxiety and autonomic flexibility: a cardiovascular approach.Biological Psychology.1998;47(3):243–263.

Love, Gentleness and Kindness, Feelings That Promote Health and Well-being:

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor of Medicine Emeritus and creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, in his book, Full Catastrophe Living states, “Healing energy can be directed toward others and toward your relationships as well as toward your own body.  This is a very effective way of healing yourself, because the process of generating strong feelings of empathy, compassion, and love toward others has its own purifying effect on the mind.  When such strong positive feelings are invoked in a mind that has become relatively calm and stable through intensive meditation practice, these feelings can then be effectively directed toward others.”

He continues, “I always thought this was a little strange and contrived until I saw the power it had.  When practiced regularly, loving kindness meditation has a softening effect on the heart. It can help you to be kinder to yourself and to others in your own mind, to see all beings as deserving of kindness and compassion, so that, even if disputes do arise, your mind can see clearly and your heart does not close down and become lost in self-serving yet ultimately self-destructive negative feeling states.”

An article by Dr. Esch of Charité University Medicine Berlin, Institute for General Practice and Family Medicine, Berlin and Dr. Stefano of the Neuroscience Research Institute, State University of New York, looked into the physiology and psychology of love.  In the article entitled, Love Promotes Health, they explain that love and compassion,

  • Have consequences for health and wellbeing. They state the better we understand the concrete neurobiology of love and its possible secondary implications, the greater is our respect for the significance and potency of love’s role in mental and physical health.
  • Positive emotions, compassion and happiness help us to feel better, particularly in relation to stress, and furthermore they improve bodily functions. For example, love, compassion and joy make our immune system function better and help to battle diseases.  Furthermore, love and pleasure facilitate trust and belief in the body’s capability of restoring or maintaining health. Thereby, pleasure helps promote the desired state of dynamic balance. In humans, cognition and belief are vital for reward and pleasure experiences. Social contacts, in addition, provide pleasure, hence survival.

In their pilot study, an eight week program, helped to reduce chronic pain, psychological distress, and anger.  They went on to explain that the feeling of love has consequences for health and wellbeing.  They state the better we understand the concrete neurobiology of love and its possible implications, the greater is our respect for the significance and potency of love’s role in mental and physical health.

Current research on these topics made the wellness concept evolve from an esoteric or non-scientific background to become a major focus of progressive medical science. Well-being is now acknowledged and recognized as a powerful behavioural tool for supporting motivation and decision making; that is, choosing activities that engage rather than numb our minds.

Findings indicate that there is a fine balance between different physiological states and activity patterns of the central nervous system (CNS) regions involved in love and attachment formation. This specific CNS activity pattern appears to exert protective effects, even on the brain itself.  Moreover, the anxiolytic effects (these are anti-anxiety effects) of pleasurable experiences may occur by promoting an inhibitory tone in specific areas of the brain.  Engaging in joyful activities such as love may activate areas in the brain responsible for emotion, attention, motivation and memory (limbic structures), and it may further serve to control the autonomic nervous system helping in stress reduction.

To summarise:

Developing loving compassionate feelings benefits our health and well-being through,

  • strengthens the immune system.
  • helps balance the actions of the limbic system.
  • helps strengthen the role of the parasympathetic nervous system thus reducing the effects of stress.
  • has a protective effect upon the brain’s systems.
  • promotes anxiolytic effects (these are anti-anxiety effects) through pleasurable experiences.
  • promotes positive social interactions.


Love Promotes Health by Dr. Tobias Esch and Dr. George B. Stefano. Neuroendocrinology Letters No.3 June Vol.26, 2005  Copyright © 2005 Neuroendocrinology Letters ISSN 0172–780X

  1. Walsh (2011): Lifestyle and Mental Health. (2011, January 17: doi: 10.1037/a0021769).

Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn, published by Piatkus, 1990 reprinted 2007.  ISBN:0-7499-1585-4

Why Heart Meditation Practices Are Important:

In 2008 a study led by Richard Davidson, professor of psychiatry and psychology at University of Wisconsin-Madison and UW-Madison associate scientist Antoine Lutz was published in the Public Library of Science One.  The study was the first to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to indicate that positive emotions such as loving-kindness and compassion can be learned in the same way as playing a musical instrument or being good in a sport.  The scans revealed that brain circuits used to detect emotions and feelings were dramatically changed in subjects who had extensive experience practicing compassion meditation.

“The research suggests that individuals, from children who may engage in bullying to people prone to recurring depression, and society in general could benefit from such meditative practices,” says study director Richard Davidson, an expert on imaging the effects of meditation.  “Compassion meditation can be beneficial in promoting more harmonious relationships of all kinds”, he added.

The scans showed significant activity in the insula which is a region near the frontal portion of the brain that plays an important role in bodily representations of emotion.  "The insula is extremely important in detecting emotions in general and specifically in mapping bodily responses to emotion, such as heart rate and blood pressure and making that information available to other parts of the brain," says Davidson.

Activity also increased in the temporal parietal juncture, particularly the right hemisphere. Studies have implicated this area as important in processing empathy, especially in perceiving the mental and emotional state of others.

"Both of these areas have been linked to emotion sharing and empathy," Davidson says. "The combination of these two effects, which was much more noticeable in expert meditators as opposed to the novices, was very powerful."

The findings support Davidson and Lutz's working assumption that through training, people can develop skills that promote happiness and compassion.  "People are not just stuck at their respective set points," he says. "We can take advantage of our brain's plasticity and train it to enhance these qualities."

Antoine Lutz stated how, “The capacity to cultivate compassion, which involves regulating thoughts and emotions, may also be useful for preventing depression in people who are susceptible to it. Thinking about other people's suffering and not just your own helps to put everything in perspective." He went on to explain that learning compassion for oneself is a critical first step in compassion meditation.


Study shows compassion meditation changes the brain.  An article by Dian Land, published by the University of Wisconsin News, March 25, 2008

The Heart: Part of the Chinese Tradition Perspective:

Keeping this in mind let’s look at the Chinese traditions perspective for health and well-being.  The following is an extract from the Nei Ye meaning, "Inward Training", which is part of the Guan Zi, (an encyclopaedic compilation of Chinese philosophical materials named after the 7th century BCE philosopher Guan Zhong).

When our hearts are well regulated, our senses are well regulated too.

When our Hearts are at rest, our sense organs are at rest too.

What regulates them is the Heart.

What sets them at rest is the Heart.

The Heart thereby contains a Heart.

(That is to say) within the Heart there is another Heart.

Eminent Chinese medicine practitioner and translator of the ancient Chinese texts, Elisabeth Rochat de la Verre, explains this as,

“The terms that are used in the Chinese are just this, the Heart is to store the Heart.  In the middle of the Heart there is another Heart.  So the question is whether the Heart which is the middle of the Heart is the intelligence or the mind.”

These words begin to make much more sense now when we refer back to the words of Dr. Freudenberger when he says the heart also has its own operating system inside the heart itself.  The Heart within a Heart!

We can also begin to see that through practice the Chinese system understood the positive influence the heart can have upon how we feel when they state, “When our hearts are well regulated, our senses are well regulated too.  When our Hearts are at rest, our sense organs are at rest too.”

Not too far away from these words of Dr. Goldstein describing how, “Hormonal, chemical, rate and pressure information is translated into neurological impulses by the heart's nervous system and sent from the heart to the brain through several afferent pathways. They also cascade up into the higher centres of the brain, where they will influence perception, decision making and other cognitive processes.

What people in the classes have said about our Gentle Love/Loving Kindness Meditations

In the Activated Qi meditation classes we do a wide variety of gentle love, loving kindness and compassion meditations in order to develop for ourselves the potential benefits which have been described above.  Here are some of the comments people have made about how they have felt having done these meditations.

“This meditation made me appreciate how little time I spend giving positive feelings and regard to my body.  We just expect it to work for us and berate it when it doesn’t.  It gave me a real ‘lift’ to spend this time sending loving feelings to my body.”  J.S.

“Good to get back to 60 minutes of meditation~ bliss!  Experienced warmth in my hand when feeling gentle love in my heart and then felt pins and needles in my hands and feet.  Thank you.”  S.H.

“I found this meditation very powerful.  Initially bringing love into the heart started with a gradual flow and then I felt this wonderful gush of loving energy flow through me!  Amazing and beautiful experience.”  B.V.

“Very warm hand when we were doing guiding the gentle love into the hand while it rested on the diaphragm/abdomen area.  It is still warm even now and there is no pain in my body.  Thanks.”  A.B.

“Felt like a warm fluffy blanket was over me today ~ sinking into it.”  P.S.

“I liked the concept of ‘body reset’ using love from the heart.  I also noticed a considerable amount of feeling emanating from the heart at the very end of the meditation, the ‘honouring others’ section.”  C.S.

“Really enjoyed taking gentle love into all of the body at the cellular/molecular level.”  C.T.

“A wonderful meditation!  Spent some time with my two brothers, took them to my beautiful inner space.  Fantastic.” F.P.

“Joyful addition to bring in a third person to sit beside.  Feel almost detached compared to at the beginning.  Felt a sense of permission to really accept the loving gentleness to my core.” L.B.

“Liked the meditation visualisation involving loved ones.  Nice to think of the contribution they make towards your own relaxation/loving feelings.  Take it for granted too often.” L.B.