In 1991, a visionary named Doc Childre assembled a crack team of scientists, educators and business people to create the Institute of HeartMath, an organization dedicated to ground-breaking research that would help train hundreds of thousands of people around the globe how better to monitor and manage their emotions, thus reducing the number one cause of disease (stress) and transforming their lives in the process. HeartMath’s work has been honored by publication in such prestigious journals as the Harvard Business Review, The American Journal of Cardiology and Journal of Advancement in Medicine, and has garnered widespread attention in such media outlets as The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, CNN, Good Morning America and more. Their corporate client list reads like an organizational encyclopedia: Boeing, Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, Liz Claiborne, Shell, Sony, hospitals, school systems, federal and state agencies, universities, the U.S. military…you get the idea.

From the start, Childre’s long-time friend and associate Howard Martin (HeartMath’s Executive VP of Strategic Development) has been there, helping to guide and shape the mission. And from his early days (pre-HeartMath) as a rock ‘n’ roll drummer to his worldwide appearances as a keynote speaker, educator and global HeartMath spokesman, Howard has never missed a beat. We recently spent a thoroughly enjoyable hour speaking with the man at the heart of HeartMath. — JDM

What led you to cofound HeartMath?

I had been a professional musician, and left that life to pursue an interest in personal and spiritual development. After I left the music business, I went from a minimum wage job stocking shelves at a GNC, to insurance, to being a broker for E.F. Hutton, to working as a VP for a company raising money for volunteer service emergency organizations.

Quite a varied path!

It was. But all this time, I had been associated with [HeartMath founder] Doc Childre, whom I’d known way back from the music business. Doc was the hardest-working person I’d ever seen, and what he worked on most was himself. He had an intelligence about him that amazed me. He wasn’t ambitious, never talked about forming an organization—he was just busy proving things to himself.

We met some people in California who became very interested in what Doc was doing. Interestingly enough, they were running a multilevel company! But after a few years, when Doc finally decided to start an organization, they sold off their part of the business and joined him. We moved to California and in 1991, formed a nonprofit called the Institute of HeartMath.

Our approach was to explore the type of intelligence people had always referred to as “heart,” to take it out of the confines of religion and spirituality and look at it pragmatically. Was it just a metaphor, or was there really a unique, intuitive source of wisdom and intelligence associated with what people call “heart”?

Although we’d been exploring that for years, we hadn’t yet applied formal science to it. So now we brought in some scientists who were interested in Doc’s theories, and began developing a research laboratory.

Is it accurate to call your work, “biofeedback all grown up for the twenty-first century”?

In a way. But HeartMath is more than the technology. We’re a whole system and school of thought. In 1998 we spun off a for-profit company, HeartMath LLC, and two years later created a third, Quantum Intech, just to deal with the technology products, control our patents, and so forth. But our principal focus has always been our research and education.

What’s the essence of that research?

We set out to map out the communication pathways by which the heart communicates with the brain and the rest of the body. There’s a whole field that studies the nervous system and the heart, called neurocardiology. Within that field, we began pioneering research in this area of heart-brain communication.

We used something called Heart Rate Variability (HRV) analysis, which had been around since the seventies. We were one of the first people to produce a consumer-oriented HRV feedback device. Today it’s become the biggest field in biofeedback.

What is the core idea behind measuring Heart Rate Variability?

It’s pretty simple—actually, it’s quite complex, but I can try to explain it simply!

When our heart beats, we have this big ka-bump, and then there’s another ka-bump.

Ka-bump—this is a technical term?

That’s right! [laughs] Here’s the interesting part: the timing between those two ka-bumps is actually different with every single heart beat. The heart doesn’t really have a steady rhythm, it’s constantly fluctuating, albeit very subtly. So when our doctor tells us our heart beats seventy beats a minute, what he’s really saying is that it averages out to that. The actual timing of it changes constantly.

When you plot these subtle beat-to-beat changes through HRV analysis, some very interesting and complex patterns emerge. A greater variability means a wider range in which your heart can operate, which is actually a sign of health and longevity.

HRV was originally pioneered by researchers in Australia who were looking for a way to measure the health of babies in utero. They realized that what causes this variability in heart rates is the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Therefore, you could get really good measurements of the operation of the ANS by looking at the heart rhythms. It’s also a measurement of cardiovascular health and efficiency.

And of more than purely physical health, as well?

That’s what’s so interesting. When we stand up, the heart rate speeds up to pump more blood to our brain so we don’t fall over. Researchers already knew this. What they were not so aware of was that emotions also change heart rate variability. In fact, HRV patterns respond almost instantaneously to what we’re feeling.

Now we had a physiological measurement of our emotional state, and we were taking it out of pure biology and bringing it into psychology.

How does the changing heart rate affect the rest of the body?

When we experience a negative emotion, such as anger or frustration, you’ll see a very jagged, irregular, chaotic-looking pattern in the HRV rhythm, reflecting a sort of internal battle. This causes the release of excessive hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which puts a lot of wear and tear on the nervous system and the physical heart, and leads to a host of health problems.

These more chaotic signals also cascade up into the brain, causing the higher perceptual centers to start shutting down, so we can’t think clearly.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that when we experience positive emotional states, such as appreciation or caring for someone, the heart rhythm patterns become very smooth and orderly—and now the opposite effects occur across the board. Now we have the release of hormones like DHEA, the anti-aging hormone, which is great for the nervous system and extremely healthy for the physical heart. And these heart rhythms also cascade up into the brain, where they open up the higher perceptual centers. The brain becomes more active and alive, and we gain access to more of our greater intelligence capacities.

The term for this state is psychophysiological coherence: your emotions, mind and various bodily systems are synchronizing perfectly. And that can impact everything from our communication skills, relationships, business skills, sports performance skills, everything. It’s a peak performance state.

It sounds like you’re scientifically validating a ton of traditional wisdom about the mind-body connection.

We’re not a religious organization in any way, but there are certain principles about love, care and appreciation, about non-judgment and forgiveness, and all these emotions are what trigger the coherent state.

Today there are over 500 books in print that cite HeartMath research. Everything from Megatrends 2010 to health books, personal development books, relationship books, family books, it goes on and on.

In business, when people do organizational transformation work, they can lay out some pretty cool conceptual models, but they have no way of proving it. We’ve proved it—both in our physiological and psychological research and in the large-scale case studies we’ve done with different organizations.

So if you improve an individual’s state, you improve the performance of the whole organization?

Sure, because what are organizations? They’re just groups of individuals. If you overlay a set of team-building concepts on top of a bunch of dysfunctional people, you just get a dysfunctional team!

Tell us a little about the technology.

The emWave technology offers both a measurement tool and a training tool. emWave PC consists of a piece of software with a hardware component, a sensor that goes on your finger or ear and then plugs into the USB port of your computer, creating an HRV monitor that shows your HRV patterns in real time and helps you train yourself into a high-performance state.

The emWave PC has a patented algorithm that analyzes those HRV patterns and assigns a coherence level value, so it shows you whether you’re in low, medium or high coherence. It has games designed into it, you can look at different views, save data, and so forth.

We’ve also just come out with a hand-held unit, the “emWave Personal Stress Reliever,” which displays the information through colors in the LEDs.

This something you’d typically do for, say, fifteen minutes a day?

Fifteen minutes would be great. We’ve been selling this in all sorts of markets: health professionals, sports performance, education, school systems, and so forth.

Tell us about some of the larger studies you've done.

We did a very large study with prison staff at the California Department of Corrections, to see if we could have any impact on the risk factors associated with health care cost increases. Based on the 125 people we worked with, they found a health care cost reduction of approximately $700 per employee.

We developed a program that has been proven to reduce turnover in hospital staff. For a year, we trained 400 out of 1200 nurses, and the turnover went down from 27 percent overall to only 5.6 percent in the HeartMath-trained group. which translated into $850,000 in annualized savings.

You had a reduction in turnover basically because they were happier in their jobs.

Right—we helped empower people to shift their perceptions. We can't change pay scales, work hours or management structure. But we give them new tools to deal with the stress, tools to perceive things differently, and because of that, they have more of a tendency to stay at the hospital. And we've got data now from four other hospitals with the same kinds of results.

We have a number of programs going on in schools. We've implemented one, called Test-Edge, in nine school districts across the country, teaching kids how to better regulate and manage their emotions—especially anxiety—to improve test scores.

In the fifteen years since the Institute began, do you see a difference in how people view the emotions’ impact on the body?

It's been shifting slowly, and lately it's really picking up momentum.

One thing people often have trouble understanding is that this isn't about "mind over body." It's not mental, it's emotional. This is not some sort of a breathing technique. This is about making an emotional change.

The emotions have a bigger impact on health than probably any other factor, certainly way more than diet, exercise or breathing techniques. I would go so far as to say that understanding how to better utilize our emotions represents the next frontier in human evolution.

Have you encountered a lot of resistance or disbelief from the medical profession?

Not really. When I ask cardiologists, "What's the real source of cardiovascular disease in your patients?" I nearly always get the same answer: "Stress."

What is stress? It's discord in emotions. Sure, diet and exercise have an impact; I'm not saying those aren't important. But they'll tell you "stress," every time.

It’s interesting that we have to be trained to notice this.

Because we’re so busy and we stay so mentally focused, most of what we’re feeling just goes by without our noticing it. But it has its impact at a physiological level. Some emotions revitalize us. Some drain us. It’s that simple.

If you just slow down and say, “What’s the truth right now about what I’m feeling?” you’ll gain a whole new level of understanding and self-awareness. Just a few moments will give you a picture of a whole other world going on internally.

Is that the kind of thing you do in workshops, train people how to take emotional inventory?

Exactly. We have a whole grid for helping people map out their emotional landscape, so they can see which types of emotions are most common and which are not.

We do have the ability to choose our emotions. That’s the skill set: to be able to feel how I want to feel, when I want to feel it. To be able to call the shots, as opposed to simply being at the mercy of my emotions.

Because emotions are a great gift. They give us a way to experience the world like nothing else on the planet. We have the most sophisticated emotional capacity of any living thing, by far—and that’s a great gift. It’s part of the wonderful thing that makes us human. Yet we often squander that gift, simply because we haven’t been trained in how to deal with it.

I was giving an interview once to an ABC World News reporter, and afterwards she came up to me and said, “That was amazing!”

I said, “What was amazing?”

And she said, “You know, the thing you said about emotions—that you can choose them! I always thought emotions were something that just happened to me.”

Here was this highly intelligent, very successful media personality—and she was telling me she had never realized that she could choose her own emotions!

Is that because we live so much in our heads?

The mind alone cannot figure out the emotions. The emotions work faster than mental processing. We feel something, and then think about it. The thought actually follows the emotion.

This is the problem with some traditional psychological models. You can’t really get a grip on emotions working with a slower computer. You need to have an intelligence that works at a faster speed than the speed of emotions.

That’s heart intelligence: a new intelligence that works at a higher speed and on a more intuitive bandwidth than mental processing alone. At the core of our being is another computer—one that has the ability to embrace both the mind and the emotions.

That’s what we’re developing at HeartMath, and helping other people develop in themselves.

What do you see ahead for us?

We have placed a tremendous amount of emphasis on how we have developed physically, which you can see, for example, in health care. You can also see great strides in our mental development in just in the last 100 years, reflected in our knowledge and technology.

But when you look at the emotional component, yes, we have developed therapy and different types of psychological information. But as a global species, have we really focused as much attention on the development of our emotional capacity as we have on the physical or the mental? Or are we operating pretty much with the same emotional framework as we have for thousands of years?

As the speed of life accelerates, we’re bombarded by tremendous change; emotionally, we’re not keeping up. We haven’t refined the emotional capacity to meet the speed of change, and that’s creating a lot of the angst and dissatisfaction people are feeling. Based on my fifteen years of observations, I’d say half to two-thirds of the population in the industrialized world are suffering from low-grade anxiety and depression. It’s become so “normal,” people don’t even realize there’s anything different.

Yet it doesn’t have to be that way. If we learn to refine our emotional capacities, we can ride this wave of change in a state of poise and grace.

We’re going to go through some tough times. Things are going to get worse before they get better. But I have great hope in humanity, because we are a very adaptable species. We have a tendency, once our back is to the wall, to begin making the changes we need to take us to something new.

I believe we’re going to emerge from all this with a whole new way of approaching life, one that’s much more cooperative and fulfilling. And it’s going to have a lot to do with how we experience things at the emotional level.