Welcome! It’s no big deal, really. All you have to do is delve into the chambers of your heart. Next, you kinda hack its operating system. Sounds amazing, but how is it done? I’ll show you how.
Before you start thinking there’s some sort of secret or ill-devised way to accomplish this let me tell you upfront that it has to do with using your mind to access the heart. Then you move on to establish a successful mind-heart partnership.
The brain is made up of billions of nerves and when they fire in the way devised by nature they become entangled in a functional state called consciousness. The walls of the heart also have neurons; however, their role is far from established. What do they do when connected?
A large and vital human structure called the vagus nerve travels from the brain to regulate several viscera, including the heart. The vagus is known for its ability to slow the heartbeat. What is not so well known is the other way around. What is the role of the neurons hidden in the walls of the heart? Which kind of messages do they send to the brain via the vagus? Do they have the capacity of “slowing” the mind?
What we do know is that we can use the power of consciousness to reach the heart. Once this is achieved a two-way communication is established between heart and brain. I propose to you, the reader, to find out the personal meaning of this connection once you successfully hack your heartbeat.
I have done so for the past two years and have come to feel that I have a life. Perhaps I should rephrase this. Let’s say interoception and I have become so integrated that I can now enjoy happiness as never before. Did I just say interoception?
Please, go on reading.
Know your Heart
Scientific studies have shown that there’s a link between perception of the heartbeat and emotional resourcefulness (for a review see Critchley and Garfinkel 2017). In general, the accurate perception of the heartbeat means you become more connected with your self within. The stronger this connection the better the perception of emotions arising and, to some extent, the control over them.
Everyone can feel the heartbeat by momentarily shifting the conscious attention to the chest and search for the heart. This is the quality known as interoception. It may prove a bit difficult in the beginning but anyone can do it. It is a matter of focus and training.
Focus means you really have to walk the extra mile and do the conscious search for the heartbeat because any simple “where the heck is it” can lead to the mind surrendering to failure. And before you know it, you’re taken over by ideas or matters pressing for more immediate results.
Training means doing it again, over and over. And after a few days you’re enabled to feel the heartbeat at will.
A second and more critical component relates do identifying the two different phases of the heartbeat. As we all know, the heart contracts (which is known as the systole) and relaxes (the diastole). At systole, the heart ejects blood from the ventricle; at diastole the muscle fibers relax and the ventricle is filled with blood. When the heart relaxes and the valve between ventricle and atrium opens, the ventricle literally sucks the blood from the atrium. Then it is ready for systole.
At the end of diastole, when the left ventricle is filled by suctioning, a little extra push may be given by the contraction of the atrium thereby guaranteeing the filling process is maximal. However, if the suction itself is efficient there is no need for exertion from the atrium; research has shown that the need for the atrial push may predict heart failure in the future.
The point here is, your job is to try and feel the diastole. It means paying attention to the phase in which your heart relaxes and gets ready for contraction. Once you master that feeling you become endowed with interoception. Feeling diastole after diastole means you’re in the present moment. It is certainly a challenge, but it becomes progressively easier.
You may say yeah, ok, but what is the point of it? Well, the reason you want to do this is to increase interoception, a step necessary to reach emotional self-control.
Expanding interoception adds neurons to a region in the brain called the insula. It also furthers the insula’s connections to other areas of the brain. This structure and its connections act as the seat where signals coming from the outer world are integrated with those coming from within the body. Decision making processes rely heavily on external factors because these trigger the need for choices. But decisions also need signaling from the inner body. Antonio Damasio’s somatic marker hypothesis posits that decision making occurs only after emotions have reached the brain. Suppose you received bad news. This causes a brief but significant change in your heartbeat sequence. When this change is acknowledged and coupled with the appropriate cognitive processes “feelings” develop. This works largely in subconscious areas of the brain but you can bring it to consciousness by interoception.
In a nutshell, interoception is the ability to perceive internal signals coming from the body and acting on your mind. It also puts you in the center of the present moment. It enables you to be in touch with your emotions as they take place and not just simply be carried away by them. Is allows you to take control of emotions unfolding in real time — hence self-control.
When you hack your heartbeat, you change your emotional life from “reaction” to “cooperation” (with emotions). Remember the advice “take a deep breath before jumping into action”? It works. It works even better if you are able to couple the deep breath with paying attention to the heart. A handful of diastoles will suffice. As you breathe out deeply, as in expiration, the heart is guided into slowing its beat. Therefore, as you approach the end of expiration, you are given some “extra time” to feel the heart relaxing. This is moment you've hacked your heart.
Fasting and exercise make a better diastole
It has recently been shown that what you eat can affect the diastolic heart function. A low-glycemic/high-protein (but not a low-fat/high-carbohydrate) nutrition improves diastolic dysfunction in overweight patients with type 2 diabetes. It also reduces insulin resistance and may prevent or delay the onset of diabetic damage to the heart.
Biohackers are widely known to practice intermittent fasting which brings about weight reduction, improved markers of health, reduced risk of chronic diseases and better brain functioning.
The heart’s diastolic ventricular filling is also improved by exercise. I have been able to prove this myself, taking the perception of the relaxation phase of the heart to a higher step.
When I go to the gym for my workouts, I close the session with a half hour walking/running exercise on the treadmill.
I undergo the 2 x 3 routine whereby I walk for two minutes (say from minute zero to 2) and then run for another 3 (from minute 2 to 5). I do this all the way up to 30 minutes. When in the running phase, I turn my attention to the heart. Of course, the fact that my body is moving prevents me from feeling the heartbeat. It is impossible. One of the requirements to feel one’s heartbeat is actually being in a quiet position.
So, here’s what I do. As I begin to run, I shift my attention to the chest and search for the heart. Not its beat, just the feeling of its presence. I know it occupies the middle of my chest behind the sternum with its apex pointing downwards and to the left.
So, I am aware of the presence of my heart. It is interoception working and movement itself brings no interference.
I then start visualizing the heartbeat by projecting it onto my visual field. I imagine seeing the heart beating. And I specifically aim for the relaxation chamber-filling diastolic phase. This is a visualization exercise and the timing of this visual heartbeat needs to bear no accuracy to the actual heartbeat. I then bring the visual image closer and closer to my chest. The result is that at some point the feeling of the presence of the heart and the visual projection of the heartbeat fuse into one single sensory experience. I call it visuoperception of the heart.
No doubt, it is a complex and very mindful exercise where attention to the present moment is absolutely necessary especially because it is done under a running effort. However, its payoff is amazing. You aim to the summed perception of your heart mixed with the visual projection of the heart beating. I do it during the full three minutes running time and then I “visuoperceptually” relax for the 2-minute walking part of the exercise.
During the time I have been doing this, I have made tremendous improvement. My visuoperception is now at hand as I take the first step running on the treadmill. During the 3-minute running cycle of the exercise I fully enjoy the integration of the summed sensory experiences in my head. The visuoperception of the heart, added to my joints moving in space, the muscles contracting and letting go with all my surroundings in the back of my sight get integrated into a single perceptual experience. Although all these sensory modalities keep dancing individually in my mind, I am enabled to feel all of them without focusing on any of them.
The moment I feel this summed sensory integration, I put a smile up into my face — I have just entered a state of flow. I can describe it as an effortful and yet blissful moment whereby I visuosense my heart in its moving body. It is as if I were immersed in time and space. A transcending though very real experience of hyper-awareness takes place.
As Michael Woronko has described it, "it is a quiet observation happening, whereby my mind flows through these various states of enhanced consciousness, akin to some kind of hyper-awareness in the present moment, while always maintaining focus on an end-point or end-result".
This is where hacking my heart has taken me. It has enabled me to accomplish an unimagined sensory experience. I also believe this mechanism has taken my interoception to a higher level. Because of it, I feel protected from old bouts of anxiety or depression. They take place no longer.
I can feel emotions arise and before jumping into action I am capable of waiting for the moment I have the best course of action. I have been living a better life ever since. Hacking one's heart means empowering life. I have also been much more productive at work. And finally, flashes of insight and creativity have been as active as never before.
So, I will end up this piece by inviting you to give it a try. Once you hack your heart, you will begin traveling a path of enlightenment. I hope you will be as successful as I have been. At any rate, drop me a line to comment about it or ask any questions if you wish.