Biofeedback and mindfulness

Today’s business paradigm of rewarding performance on the basis of measured outcomes isn’t a new idea. Learning and Development goals for personal improvement rely on three simple aspects. The tuition, the practise, and the assessment. Measurement is not simply to verify a competency as closure to training, but it’s vital to correcting and enhancing understanding for yourself.

“If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it” …. Lord Kelvin 1883 *
Cardio-fitness. Athletes seeking peak performance are being joined by all and sundry seeking motivation for exercise, in usage of metrics. Simple weight and repetitions, or distance and times logged, or biometrics such as heart rate (to keep inside a safe envelope of effort). Recently heartrate variability (HRV) sensing has been adopted to inform the decision of whether to train today. Or sleep in. It all depends on your mindset, whether your intent is openness to whatever the experience offers or simply going through the motions on autopilot.

Mentally fit. To explain the anatomy behind the theory:
♥ Fight & flight is from the sympathetic nervous system causing endocrine outputs such as adrenalin (epinephrine as it’s known in the US). It’s a survival response arising in the reptilian depths of our brain, around 6 times faster than rational thought process in the cortex. DON’T STEP ON THAT SNAKE ………………………………………………… no, wait up – it’s just a stick. However heightened arousal has already set off neurotransmitter and hormone cascades. Chemical affect upon the heart ticker effects longterm increased rate, which means that the beat-to-beat changes are subtle but steady.

♥ Rest & digest parasympathetic balances autonomic nervous system to moderate that panic, and is effected by the vagus nerve. This electrical settling of heartrate took time to formulate in the brain cortex, but works near instantaneously on rate. Thus beat-beat (R-R pulse, also known as NN) intervals change markedly when your mind exerts control. Reporting on R-R through an HRV check is being suggested by coaches, to ensure the exercise activities are undertaken with the right mindset, mindfully.


HRV training uses biofeedback to display this measure of autonomic balance (or Vagal tone) in realtime, and seeks to amplify your increases in rate with the in-breath – a natural observation known as Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia. Gevirtz and Lehrer provide many journal articles and video explanations, and a few months ago ‘Treating the mind to improve the heart‘ appeared in Frontiers in Psychology journal announcing studies underway at a US Veteran’s Affairs medical centre. The simplicity of the measure means it’s already quantified, without having to compensate for blood pressure etc, thus a trackable assessment for the diary. Neurofeedback training adds a deeper level of complexity, by selecting EEG leads on the scalp to quantify, and visually report focus in regions of the brain responsible for control – such as sensorimotor for chronic pain. The history of training by reward for helpful brainwaves goes back to Sherman’s meditating cats in ’65. It’s the reverse of the classical conditioning in Pavlov’s dogs, being response reinforcement after a behaviour. This is the second aspect, a practise.

Tuition. Finally, back to the beginning: coaching in the principles. Educational courses in mindfulness abound, this is a no-brainer! Breathworks ® happens to have scientific endorsement from the University of Cambridge, using fMRI imaging to investigate participant neuroplasticity. A how-to pdf on the introspective insight of HRV is provided under ‘Free Stuff’ at this site.

Practicalities. HRV is supported by many ECG cheststraps which very accurately measure the electrical R-R interval, and upload this to smartphone apps capable of Bluetooth LE e.g. Polar H7 and Zephyr HxM. Rather than this BLE protocol, Garmin uses Ant+ wireless as does 60Beat – and SweetBeat for iOS interfaces on both these protocols. iThlete have a simple sensor to detect blood pulsing in the finger,  and this has been validated against the gold standard of ECG for use as a tool for developing countries (in a medical rather than sports context). Elite HRV commercialise this product as the CorSense, but FirstBeat takes HRV into the corporate setting so as to encourage work/life balance. Two ECG dots are worn for a couple of days, the device is returned for analysis, and an employee report issues forth.

Getting into bed with management looking on? OK

* Actually the quote attributed to Kelvin is drawn from a speech which began thus: “In physical science the first essential step in the direction of learning any subject is to find principles of numerical reckoning and practicable methods for measuring some quality connected with it…..”

1 thought on “Biofeedback and mindfulness

  1. An example of biofeedback appears in the last few minutes of this podcast: where fMRI (realtime brain regions activity shown by MRI) is displayed to recovering drug addicts. Training where their addictive craving comes from is the key to controlling it whenever thoughts of using cocaine arise. The conceptual idea is in early stages, and we can appreciate all the more the ready availability of technology for HRV display of autonomic balance.


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