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Does HRV Biofeedback Help Mindfulness Meditation?

Publication date: 21 August 2012

I use biofeedback a lot in my personal mindfulness meditation practice (I find it helps me maintain focus). One of forms I use is Heart Rate Variability (HRV) (also known as Heart Rate Coherence) biofeedback. What difference does having the feedback actually make? This week I tried investigating this question at least somewhat objectively. I recorded two short mindfulness sessions, one with feedback and the other just passive recording. In this blog post I want to write about the results.

Firstly let me explain what parameters I'm using to quantify HRV. HRV is a pattern of synchronisation between the heart rate and the breath, such that the heart rate speeds up on inhalation and slows down again on exhalation – as in the graphic below. (Note, I'll refer to the variation in the heart rate as the 'heart wave'.)

heart rate coherence

I used software that I developed myself for use with my clients. Already available for rental to clients at my practice, it will soon be for sale to the general public. I'm calling it 'Mindfulness Technology'. The software computes two complementary measures of HRV:

  • 'Coherence Score' – a high score is characterised by large but regular swings in HR of the cycle of the breath – 20 to 30 beats per minute, perhaps even more.
  • 'Synchrony' – this is simply the time lag between the peak of the breath and the peak of the heart wave, around the end of the inhalation. The more closely the breath and heart wave are “in sync”, the lower the synchrony.

Now let's look at what happened in my experiment. I should say that I recorded the sessions on two consecutive days, at around the same time (in the evening). Both were eyes-closed meditations, the one with audio feedback.

First coherence score.

Meditation Without Feedback

heart coherence in mindfulness meditation

Meditation With Feedback

heart coherence biofeedback in mindfulness

You can see that the coherence score was actually higher on average without feedback. Not, at first sight, a great advert for using biofeedback in meditation. (The average scores for with and without feedback were 57.1 and 67.5 respectively.

Next we'll look at synchrony.

Meditation Without Feedback

heart coherence in mindfulness practice

Meditation with Feedback

heart coherence biofeedback during meditation

You see that the synchronisation is much tighter with feedback – the synchrony scores are much more tightly clustered around the zero line (dotted) – the average being 0.05 seconds as opposed to -1.24 seconds without feedback.

Without feedback, the synchrony is mostly negative, meaning the heart wave consistently leads the breath (i.e. the heart wave turns before the breath turns).

Average breathing rates were 6.0 with feedback and 5.6 without - not a huge difference but perhaps significant insofar as it is consistent with the synchrony finding that without feedback the breath lags the heart wave. In both cases there was little variation in breathing rate.

The findings broadly agree with my general sense of how the two parameters relate to meditation. I would say that while coherence score reflects absorption or flow, an intense self-awareness actually limits it. In other words, coherence score rises higher when let go of control, let go of a sense of trying to do something. But that can happen if my awareness becomes more diffuse or fuzzy – almost day dreaming but not quite that distracted. So a kind of emotionally positive drifting.

I notice that when I sharpen up my focus, after drifting, the coherence score seems to come down. But the synchrony tends to get sharper. If I over-do the intensity of my focus to the point that I become wilful and lose the sense of flow, or mind-body harmony, then I lose the tight synchrony as well.

In my practice generally I primarily go by the synchrony feedback. I don't mind if I don't hit my highest coherence scores, as long as I've got a basic regular heart wave. Some days the coherence score is higher, some days it's lower, and whilst I'd say it does reflect how I feel, I don't have that much control over it. But synchrony feels more directly controllable.

Though my little experiment by no means constitutes scientific research, I'm glad it reflected my subjective impressions. Maybe one day some proper research will really validate my claims.

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