How the research came about
Although the research I am describing in this book emerged from my work as a psychotherapist and relationship counsellor, I started my career as a geophysicist in the oil and gas exploration industry. While this was quite different from my current work, I can now see that both careers have a strong element of connection in them. One is about connection with people, the other with the natural world. I was attracted to geophysics because I loved collecting rocks, minerals and fossils as a child. Being connected to the earth and nature has always grounded me and brought me joy. This was not the only common theme. My scientific training and experience have proved invaluable in the heart research that has absorbed me for the last few years. Interestingly, I have used the very same mathematics to analyse the heart as I did to search for oil and gas.
As is so often the case in life, our most profound learning comes at the times of our greatest adversity. As I look back now, I can see that the heart research had its origins in a very difficult period of my life. In 1999 my marriage failed unexpectedly, and I was left emotionally devastated. I soldiered on for a couple of years but no matter what I did, I couldn’t lift myself out of the sadness and pain of my loss. I became depressed, and it was only years later that I realised that my problems had come from a literal closing-down of my heart.
I began to come out of the depression when I met somebody who has now become a close and trusted friend. We met on an internet dating site. Although we did not start a romantic relationship, we got on well and had a common theme in that we were both trying to move our lives on after divorce. For several years, my friend had been attending workshops with an organisation called the Psychology of Vision 1, who help people heal emotional and relationship problems. Initially I was very sceptical about the organisation and its psychological and spiritual ideas, but with the encouragement of my friend I decided to go on a workshop. This turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. From the first few words of the introduction, I began to understand why my marriage had failed, where I had gone wrong and what I could do to make sure something like that never happened again. The learning and emotional healing I received in this period transformed my life. Eventually I became a trainer with the Psychology of Vision organisation, and this led to me setting up a relationship counselling practice. Critically, I also learnt about the importance of an open, loving heart in a successful relationship. I picked up many of the ideas and practical healing techniques that I will describe in this book from my time with this organisation.
One of the most powerful exercises during my training was called ‘joining,’ because of its ability to open hearts and facilitate bonding. It involved making eye-contact with another participant for an extended period, while remaining emotionally open and present with them. This often led to what felt like a breakthrough with the other person, where the normal reticence and self-consciousness fell away and was replaced by strong feelings of appreciation, gratitude, and love. Not only did I experience powerful emotions in these sessions, but I often felt a warm glow inside and a general feeling of joy and wellbeing. After the sessions, we would discuss our experiences with our joining partners, and it became clear that we shared many of the physical sensations.
This was not the only time I experienced these physiological effects. On the workshops, we carried out other healing exercises that focused on our personal beliefs and insecurities. With the help of a trained therapist, I was able to identify and let go of many of my own negative self-beliefs and fears, often with a dramatic release of emotions. When this happened, I experienced a range of physical sensations such as heat within my body, tingling electric shocks in my arms, and a general reduction in aches, pain, and bodily tension. These sensations seemed to be associated with the dismantling of my emotional defences and came with a noticeable release of stored emotional pain.
As my self-confidence grew, I felt I was ready to have another romantic relationship. Eventually I met and fell in love with somebody with whom I found it extremely easy to form a bond. She is now my wife. Claire shares my interest in psychology and spirituality and is also on her own healing journey. This has meant that we can be incredibly honest with each other and reveal ourselves in ways that we have not done so in previous relationships. Like all couples, we have had our difficulties, but a focus on the importance of openness and accountability has allowed us to work through these more challenging times. This has led to peak moments of bonding when we experience emotional and spiritual highs. At these times we have both noticed distinct physiological reactions like those I had experienced during the workshops.
As I learnt more about positive psychology and applied it successfully in my own life, I had a powerful desire to share the learning with the wider community. I decided to set up my own relationship coaching practice. I gradually developed my business but remained intrigued by the physical sensations that seemed to accompany healing and bonding. I had experienced them personally on many occasions and now I was also seeing them occurring in my clients. These observations led to the research project that I am describing in this book, with the central question – can the experience of love and bonding be monitored scientifically by simultaneously measuring the physiology of two people who are in a relationship?
Deciding what to measure
We were setting out to measure physiological changes, but which ones should we choose? We could have measured skin resistance, breathing, eye-dilation, brain waves, heart rate as well as biochemical markers such as hormones. In the end, we chose to study the heart because of its obvious associations with love, and frankly, because it is the simplest and cheapest thing to measure! Through some internet research I came across an organisation that had spent several decades researching the heart and its relationship to the brain and nervous system as well as other aspects of physiology. The HeartMath Institute 2, based in California, are experts in understanding how heart rate varies with time. The technical term for this is heart rate variability (HRV), which is also studied extensively in the field of cardiology. I have been collaborating informally with the HeartMath Institute for several years and we regularly share data and ideas. HeartMath have shown that the heart is far more than a blood pump. They argue that it is better to think of it as an extension of the brain and nervous system because it has its own neuronal network with direct links to the brain and body. Through research they have shown that the heart has its own intelligence, and that thoughts and emotions change the pattern of heart rate variability. As well as carrying out research, they also manufacture and sell a heart rate monitoring system. I decided to buy one and started to design some experiments.
The research begins
To familiarise myself with the heart rate monitoring technology and to gain experience in analysing and displaying the results, in the first set of experiments, I measured my own heart rate and observed how it changed with time under different emotional states. The heart rate monitor I was using measured the blood pulse in my ear lobe and recorded this as a data file on my laptop. The software that came with the monitor had a nice graphical display, but I found it better to download the data and re-plot it in a spreadsheet. In this way, I could change the time and heart rate scales and produce more useful graphs. I was also able to output some frequency analysis of my heart rate variability as the software also had this as an option.
Having carried out several experiments, I confirmed that my heart rate variability patterns did indeed change as I felt different emotions and that I could identify when I was feeling love and positive emotions from the shape of the waveforms. I was so impressed with how easy it was to make these measurements that it wasn’t long before I wanted to bring in a second person and see how their heart compared to mine as we connected and bonded with each other.
I purchased another identical heart rate monitor and got together with a good friend of mine to run some simple tests. We sat opposite each other and sustained eye-contact for twenty minutes, just as I had done during the joining exercises on the relationship workshops. When the experiment had finished, we plotted out the results and to our surprise saw our heart rates rising and falling in synchrony for much of the duration of the experiment. Thinking this might have been a chance occurrence or a mistake, we re-ran the same experiment several times and saw similar synchrony. I have included our very first experiment as figure 2. because it has become an important part of our research history. Unfortunately, it is an out-of-focus image from a paper record as the original electronic data was lost in a computer crash.
Figure 2. Our first synchronisation experiment. Heart rate variability for two friends sitting 2 metres apart, making sustained eye-contact while feeling appreciation for each other. Recorded in 2014
The obvious correlation we could see between our heart rate variability as we felt appreciation and friendship for each other intrigued us and gave us encouragement to continue the research. Soon I started running experiments with my wife. In figure 3 you can see the striking correlation in our heart rate variability as we sat close to each other on a sofa. In this case, my wife (Person 2, solid fill) was watching a television programme while I felt love for her (Person 1, black line). We were surprised at how well our changing heart rates synchronised with each other, even though only one of us was focusing love.
Figure 3. Heart rate variability of a married couple sitting next to each other on sofa. Husband, person 1 (black line) feeling love for wife, person 2 (solid fill) while she watched a television programme.
This is Part II of a chapter of the book of Peter Granger: Connected Hearts. Finding love, happiness and spiritual meaning through the wisdom of your heart. Part I you can find here.