The Central Role of the Heart in Generating and Sustaining Positive Emotions

Rollin McCraty and Robert A. Rees

in The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology

Second edition

Published in print July 2009 | ISBN: 9780195187243
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:
 The Central Role of the Heart in Generating and Sustaining Positive Emotions

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  • Social Psychology
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Scientific research has established a significant, complex, and highly sophisticated connection between the human heart and brain. The heart directly influences the activity of higher brain centers involved in perceptual and cognitive processing and in the creation of emotional experience. An important tool that provides a window into the activity occurring between the heart and brain is heart rate variability (HRV), an analytic tool that measures the beat-to-beat changes in heart rate. HRV is generated largely by interaction between the heart and brain via the neural signals flowing through the afferent (ascending) and efferent (descending) pathways of the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS).

Research has shown that sustained positive emotions facilitate an emergent global shift in psycho-physiological functioning, which is marked by a distinct change in the rhythm of heart activity. This global shift generates a state of optimal functioning, characterized by increased synchronization, harmony, and efficiency in the interactions within and among the physiological, cognitive, and emotional systems. This state is called psychophysiological coherence. As people experience sincere positive feelings, the more ordered information flowing from the heart to the brain acts to facilitate cortical function and improve cognitive performance. These findings may help explain the significant shifts in perception, increased mental clarity, and heightened intuitive awareness many individuals report when practicing heart-centered, positive emotion—refocusing and restructuring techniques.

Keywords: brain; coherence; emotion; heart; HRV

Article.  6600 words. 

Subjects: Psychology ; Social Psychology ; Clinical Psychology

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