Talking with Linda Stone about coherent breathing and human performance

After long study of the psychological effects that computers and information systems are having on us, Linda Stone has turned to the physiological effects. Her elevator pitch used to be continuous partial attention. Now it’s email apnea. When we use these technologies, Linda says, we project ourselves into them, we become disembodied, we lose the ability to regulate our posture and breathing. On this week’s Innovators show she discusses what she has learned, and challenges us to find ways to remain embodied as we interact with networked devices and information systems.

Coincidentally, I got to hang out with Linda this weekend and try the HeartMath system that she’s been experimenting with. It sense your pulse, displays the variability of your heart rate, and then guides you through a breathing exercise that helps you regulate it. The HeartMath hardware and software supports regulation of the autonomic nervous system, bringing awareness to breathing patterns that emphasize fight or flight (sympathetic) or a rest and digest (parasympathetic) state.

One expert in this field, Steve Elliott, refers to this state as Coherent Breathing, and also offers a set of exercises. Now, to be honest, when I land on web pages like this one, where scholarly charts and footnotes rub elbows with ads for Swarovski Crystal Reminder Bracelets, my instinct is to move along. I’m fiercely non-mystical. I had to quit a yoga class because I just couldn’t listen to all the chatter about sun energy and moon energy. Can’t we just breathe and stretch?

The thing is, I’m also fiercely rational about physiology and health. I know that good posture, deep breathing, and slow stretching have profound benefits. I have resolved several health crises, ones that our medical system would prefer to address with drugs and surgery, by paying attention to my body and then adjusting how I use it. But I’ve never had a chance to try biofeedback. So I was intensely curious about the HeartMath system. It uses a pulse monitor clipped to your earlobe to monitor your heart rate, plus software to guide you through an exercise that levels out the variability and leads you into a state of breathing and pulse “coherence.”

For me it was easy, and fun, to achieve a high coherence score. Linda asked: “Are you a meditator?” No. “An athlete?” Yes. So that makes sense. I have decades of experience regulating my own breathing and heart rate. But never in a work context, and that’s the point Linda is driving at. In our work environments we leave our bodies and project ourselves into computers and networks. If we can reconnect with our bodies in those environments, we’ll be healthier. I can’t prove that, but I feel sure that it’s right.

I haven’t yet plunked down $300 for the HeartMath system, but I’m trying to talk myself into it. Although the company advertises it as a “desktop personal stress relief system,” I like the way that Linda is articulating a larger vision. For her, its about human performance. We are more powerful when augmented by computers and networks, but also less healthy. One answer is to decouple ourselves from computers and networks, and sometimes that’s the right answer. But another answer is to find ways to remain embodied as we use computers and networks. Linda thinks that’s a crucial way forward, and I agree.

Why not just jump on the bandwagon then? Because my antipathy to mysticism has lately also extended to geek crazes. I’m suspicious of the instinct to solve problems created by our computerized gadgets by acquiring and using more computerized gadgets. And I’m wary of the quasi-autistic compulsion at the heart of the quantified self movement whose manifesto, the data-driven life, appeared in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.

I have been a runner and a biker for decades. People always ask: How far did you run? How fast do you bike? I don’t know. I don’t want to know. It’s enough for me to be outside, moving over the landscape, breathing deeply, thinking my own thoughts and listening to other people’s thoughts.

I’m the kind of guy who hates waiting for a machine at the Y while the person who just did 20 reps pauses to scribble in a journal that he did 20 reps.

I’m certain that we will see, in a year or two, the emergence of 12-step programs for people who are addicted to self-monitoring.

And yet…I really liked the coherent breathing exercise. I want to repeat it, and I think it can become a helpful part of my routine.

5 Comments

  1. Hi Jon,

    Loved your post.

    I have felt it so many times, that I forget to breathe while I am working. I become totally dis-embodies. I forget to breathe, I forget to drink water, to move, and to many other things.

  2. Jon,
    I share your reaction to the cruft around meditation and yoga. Perhaps there’s a title for a new exercise class: “Just Breathing & Stretching”.
    I was a bit disappointed Linda Stone didn’t grok choosing to publish audio of a video, if only because it untethers the person from a seat. I speed up the pitch to fit more into less time, and audio works on so many portable devices. But maybe that causes audio apnea. (;-)

  3. Typical American yoga instructors lace their talk of animal-themed stretching exercises with vague, disconnected images from various eastern philosophies, but certain forms of meditation, such as Vipassana and Zazen, really are about stripping away the cruft and becoming more aware of breathing and especially how much the mind flits around so that you can get a better handle on it during your day-to-day activities.

    Or I suppose you could spend $300 on a pulse sensor to plug into your USB port, but Heartmind’s talk of helping you to achieve an “optimal state in which the heart, mind and emotions are operating in-sync and balanced,” not to mention their Coherence Coach® and Emotion Visualizer®, all sound vaguer and more new-agey to me than any serious meditation practice.

  4. > sounds vague / new-agey

    Yes it does. If I ignore all that, however, the biofeedback-assisted technique was quick, easy, and seemed to be effective. I am intrigued by that.

    Maybe there needs to a version of the thing packaged up and sold in a very different way!

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