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Neuroscience: why your heart might actually be able to rule your head effectively

25th Jul 2019
Partner Head Heart + Brain
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New research has revealed that the heart plays a vital role in helping the brain to predict when musicians are about to make an error. Could this same system help business leaders make clearer decisions?

Data aids performance, and leaders know how important it is to collect and track data. When it comes to your health, it is now easy to measure and track all kinds of information. We can check our weight, blood pressure, number of steps, calories, heart rate, and blood sugar.

Recently, some researchers have started to track data that is linked to resilience and behavioural flexibility. It is called heart rate variability (HRV). Could this be the new way to improve leadership performance?

What is HRV?

HRV is a measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat. This variation is controlled by the autonomic nervous system (ANS). It regulates, among other things, our heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and digestion.

The ANS is subdivided into two parts, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the fight-or-flight mechanism and the relaxation response. This is often also referred to as the ‘threat and reward’ systems.

You will have heard me discuss their role in areas such as performance reviews and coaching.  

The brain is constantly processing information in a region called the hypothalamus.

The hypothalamus, through the ANS, sends signals to the rest of the body either to stimulate or to relax different functions.

The research suggests that highly skilled musicians (and potentially leaders) might be trained to listen to their whole bodies to minimise or eliminate mistakes.

HRV is an interesting and non-invasive way to identify ANS imbalances.

If a person’s system is in more of a fight-or-flight mode, the variation between subsequent heartbeats is low. If your system is in a more relaxed state, the variation between beats is high.

In other words, the healthier the ANS the faster you are able to switch modes, which relates to more resilience and flexibility.

People who have a high HRV may have greater cardiovascular fitness and be more resilient to stress. HRV may also provide personal feedback and motivate adopting a healthier lifestyle.

For leaders who love data and numbers, this can be a nice way to track how their nervous system is reacting not only to the environment, but also to emotions, thoughts, and feelings.

Detecting errors

New research with professional piano players indicates this heart rate variability may help us to anticipate errors and improve performance.

Dr Maria Herrojo Ruiz and colleagues from Goldsmiths University of London found that the brain receives crucial information from the heart before an error in playing occurs.

This information helps the brain predict when an error will occur and adapt behaviour.

The research found that the heart’s inter-beat interval immediately preceding an error was larger than the previous inter-beat interval.

Knowledge like this can be helpful to leaders in learning there is more information available to them than what is in their head, and than what is seen as rational data.

The study also looked at how the heart’s natural beating cycle influences how well the brain responds in predicting and processing errors.

For the first time, this research shows how, in expert musicians, detection of errors relies on integrating information from the environment (physical body movements and the sound they produce) alongside cues from inside the body, such as heart rate activity.

The research suggests that highly skilled musicians (and potentially leaders) might be trained to listen to their whole bodies to minimise or eliminate mistakes.

Prior research had found that simple mistakes trigger changes in autonomous nervous system activity, such as a slowing of the heartbeat or pupil dilation following errors, but the role of the body’s internal signals in error monitoring during trained movements, was not known.

Dr Herrojo Ruiz said: “Our findings suggest that successfully predicting the future consequences of our actions, in this case making a mistake, relies on effectively using information from receptors in different parts of the body, such as in the heart – and that is a skill which may be developed through training.”

Potential for leaders

What does this research mean for leaders in organisations? Ever since neuroscience began to be used in business there has been speculation, and some cynicism about whether we are entering an era where companies will be monitoring the internal workings – both of the brains and bodies - of leaders and staff.

I am personally doubtful about that, but I do think knowledge like this can be helpful to leaders in learning there is more information available to them than what is in their head, and than what is seen as rational data.

In order to do this though it’s worth remembering leaders need to be in touch with feelings in their body.

Embodied leadership training is available but is still seen as a bit ‘out there’ or wacky by many leaders and L&D professionals.  

The role of technology

Technology may be one means to improve body awareness.

Our mental state – i.e. if we’re stimulated (fearful/agitated) or calm – can significantly affect our ability to make optimal decisions and actions.

This is known as the Yerkes-Dodson law, which is a well-established law in behavioural psychology about the relationship between stimulation and performance.

Developed in 1908, it says that there is a state of stimulation that is optimal for performance in a given task, and that there is an inverse relationship between stimulation and task performance.

In a new study, the researchers showed that they could use neurofeedback in real time to move an individual’s stimulation from the right side of the Yerkes-Dodson curve (over stimulation) to the left, toward a state of improved performance.

The researchers used a brain computer interface (BCI) to monitor, in real time, the stimulated states of the study participants when they were engaged in a virtual reality aerial navigation task.

The system generated a neurofeedback signal that helped participants to decrease their stimulation in particularly difficult flight situations, which in turn improved participants’ performance.

“Simultaneous measurements of pupil dilation and heart rate variability showed that the neurofeedback reduced arousal, causing the subjects to remain calm and fly beyond the point at which they would normally fail,” says Josef Faller, the study’s lead author.

“Our work is the first demonstration of a BCI system that uses online neurofeedback to shift arousal state and improve task performance in accordance with the Yerkes-Dodson law”.

The researchers are now studying how neurofeedback can be used to regulate stimulation and emotion for clinical conditions such as PTSD.

They are also exploring how they might use online monitoring of stimulation and cognitive control to inform human-agent teaming, when a robot and a human work together in a high-stress situation like a rescue.

If the robot has information on the human’s stimulation state, it could choose its tasks in a way that reduces its teammate’s stimulation, pushing her/him into an ideal performance zone.

Self-monitoring

Over the past few years, several companies have launched apps and heart rate monitors.

A word of caution is that there are no agencies regulating these devices, and they may not be as accurate as they claim.

The easiest and cheapest way to check HRV is to buy a chest strap heart monitor (Polar, Wahoo) and download a free app (Elite HRV) to analyse the data. The chest strap monitor tends to be more accurate than wrist or finger devices.

Whilst we wait for a robot team mate, using devices like a bio feedback watch, it’s feasible to image that soon leaders will monitor their own heart rate variability and stimulation and adjust themselves to optimise performance in areas like decision making, stressful situations and to regulate emotions.

Interested in this topic? Read Learning strategy: how to use neuroscience to get the best from your learners.

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