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Can EMG Biofeedback Build Emotional Intelligence?

Publication date: 29 March 2016

Can EMG biofeedback (or muscle tension biofeedback) train and develop the qualities of emotional intelligence? As a biofeedback professional my answer is unsurprisingly yes, and in this article I'd like to present some concepts that will help you understand how.

First let's define emotional intelligence. The wikipedia emotional intelligence page puts it quite well:

"Emotional intelligence is the capacity of individuals to recognize their own, and other people's emotions, to discriminate between different feelings and label them appropriately, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behaviour".

From this beginning we can draw out some component faculties:

  • self-awareness
  • empathy
  • understanding
  • self-regulation.

The foundation is the first - self awareness or awareness of your own emotions. So what are emotions, and how do you recognise them?

Emotion is a complex concept. Let's list three strands.

  1. Body or physiological - when we experience an emotion the body responds - it changes in some way. For example the heart pounds in fear, the jaw clenches in anger.
  2. Cognitive - we tend to think along certain lines (content) and in certain styles (e.g. fast thoughts about revenge, in anger) and also we tend to focus in certain ways (usually narrowly with negative emotions).
  3. Behaviour - emotions move us to act in certain ways (e.g. withdrawal in sadness, outward-going in happiness).

So awareness of your emotions could be based on any one of these, or ideally on all three. Perhaps especially the first (awareness of body changes) is the most important, because in some models of emotion it's the first to happen.

For example in neuroscientist Antonio Damasio's model, emotion-triggering brain centres such as the amygdala first detect emotionally salient information in sensory data, then trigger body responses such as the heart speeding up (fear). Other brain centres such as the insula cortex then detect these changes, which may then give rise to conscious feelings.

Empathy is knowing how another person feels, or would feel. In Damasio's thinking empathy requires that we simulate the other person's response using our own brain's neural circuitry for emotion. We sort of project a response into the body, then we feel it.

We know that something like this must go on, because "mirroring" is so common in social interactions. If we see someone smile, we tend to smile with them, and we know how they feel.

A research study showed that people who've had botox injections to their faces (as part of cosmetic treatment) are less good at recognising emotions in others. Why should this be so? It makes perfect sense actually. Botox is a toxin injected into facial muscles that kills the nerves, loosening the muscles and having the desired side-effect of reducing wrinkles in the facial skin.

It also means that the face muscles no longer respond to emotional triggers in the way they normally would. Botoxed people feel emotions less intensely because of this. The "simulated" emotions needed for empathy are also less intense, making it harder to identify emotions in others.

(As an aside there's some evidence that botox can help depression by blocking the facial expressions of depression - but it's just as likely to block the experience of positive emotion.)

So to summarise, an important component of self-awareness (and thus of emotional intelligence) is the ability to recognise the body responses associated with emotion. Some people are better at this than others (they're more emotionally intelligent).

But emotional intelligence isn't cast in stone - it can be trained and developed. There's plenty of evidence for this.

My own experience as a therapist and coach is that biofeedback is an excellent tool for building emotional intelligence, and it works by building the foundation of sensitivity to one's own internal body states. For example, EMG or muscle tension biofeedback can train you to detect very subtle changes in facial tension associated with emotions. I've noticed, in my own experience of working with biofeedback in the context of meditation, that when I experience self-critical thoughts creeping in, my facial muscles pretty reliably tighten up. Ordinarily I probably wouldn't notice these, but having biofeedback there allows me to respond immediately by relaxing, and letting go of the disturbing thoughts.

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