Heart Rate Variability and Flow
heart rate / cardiovascular | stress
Paul LaFontaine is on an incredible journey to understand himself, his stress, and how he works through consistent examination of his heart rate variability (HRV). In this talk, Paul describes how he experimented with cognitive testing and recording his HRV to better understand if he was in a Flow state, and how to attain that balance between challenge and skill. He provides some very interesting personal conclusions about the role of belief in one’s own abilities versus actual skills.
Polar | rMSSD
So heart rate variability which is a measure of stress or relaxation and the variability of your heart rate in flow, which is a state you enter when you completely absorbed by a task brought them together to see if I could actually measure my heart rate variability as I move in and out of flow.
Flow is a concept that’s been around since the 90s and the idea being when you’re absorbed in a task you lose time, and when you do so it’s the balance between the challenge and skill, which is the flow zone, and it’s a psychologist named Csikszentmihalyi came up with this. When your challenge exceeds your skill its anxiety, and so for my challenge I chose a Dual N Back game, where you had to remember where a square was in a grid and a letter that was actually audio that was given to you and you had to remember in sequence over a period of time.
And the reason that I chose this game is I could flip the switch and increase my challenge, so it fits very nicely with the Csikszentmihalyi flow diagram. So I went to a Dual Two Back, which is remembering two times back and the Dual three Back is of course is much harder.
For my heart rate variability I used a time measurement called rMSSD, and the simple version is when it measures variability and when it’s high you’re relaxed because you heart is responding to your breath, and when it’s low you’re stressed because you heart is beating at a steady pace.
So an example of what stress would be is when I went to the dentist to have a tooth drilled I took my measurement and the rMSSD was 25, so my heart was beating very fast and regular, so I had a low rMSSD. When I was meditating one time and had a nice and relaxed situation my rMSSD was 71. So my breathe was going up and down and my heart was following along.
So I know that from 25 from 71 is my personal range but I did some regression analysis on a larger dataset and 48 is the point at which I break the stress or I break the relaxation, but I know that abut my physiology. So I took that and applied that to the flow concept, which means when I’m in anxiety about learning something I should be under 48 and as I move to flow I should be above 48. So that was my hypothesis that went in.
So starting with that I played the Dual N Back game 43 times over a 27 day period, and if you want to replicate this experiment it costs you around $63 worth of kit. So on my MacBook downloaded a freeware version of Dual N Back, so the price is right there, nothing.
I had a Polar heart rate monitor belt which is a Polar gate seven, which is fairly reliable and is a good piece of kit and Bluetooth connected to the iPod. On the iPod I had Sweetwater HRVs and Sweet beat life and they are a local outfit out in Los Gatos and so they take that heart beat information and feedback the rMSSD to me.
So those are the equipment I used, and each game was four and a half minutes long and I tried to play two to three times a day, so I wanted to make sure I had multiple sessions. I actually did the Two Back for 22 sessions, the 3 Back for 21 session just to see a nice comparison. I had to throw one of the 3 Back’s out so that’s why it wasn’t exactly even but I had a good set of data going into it in terms of being able to compare and I made sure that my sessions were consistent.
Heart rate variability actually goes down over the course of the day because you tier, so I wanted to make sure it had to be consistent. So between nine and eleven in the morning was when I would always take each reading.
Therefore I had a good set of data and the Sweetwater app gave me rMSSD for the four and a half minute period it would give me one number, and I would take that number and I’d upload it into a spreadsheet, and sitting next to that of course would be my score. So I had two variables that I could look at in terms of my score and my stress as how I was actually progressing relative to the flow diagram.
So I had all the equipment and everything and what did I learn? What I learned was that the stress and my movement on the diagrams did conform to what Csikszentmihalyi’s flow team actually said. However, what got me into flow was not my score. It was about my belief about my abilities and I’ll talk through what that actually means, so it was a surprising outcome for me.
So the expected progression using the flow framework would be the 2 N Back in light blues started to move the anxiety to move across because the challenge is the same when you get into the zone. And then as you increase to the Dual 3 Back you do the same thing, so it’s a left to right movement. And in fact my score, which was the demonstration of my skills, did in fact move in an upward fashion. You can see here the light blue is the 2 Back and the red is the 3 Back. So in fact that conforms what I expected. I was getting better at the game in a very steady and linear fashion.
So there you go, I mapped it against the flow diagram, nice and steady. Moved up nice and steady, so the good news is it looked like Csikszentmihalyi’s flow. Now I want to talk about what Csikszentmihalyi looked at which was stress, so how does my body actually reacting? Well actually not so linear.
You see here the Dual 2 Back coming down over time and I was getting a little bored with it, but for the first 15 sessions of the Dual 3 Back, I was experiencing the same levels of stress across the entire set. Then in the last six I popped up, so what was happening there.
So all through the 21 sessions I was trying a strategy to improve my score. At the 16th session I came up with a strategy that worked. I said a-ha, I found a way that I could actually improve my score and I believed that I cracked the code. So it was all completely an internal belief that when it was nothing to do with my actual score that if you remember that was linear that went up.
So it was belief that put me in the flow zone and not necessarily some external factor. You see here now I mapped it, and you see there is the blue was actually nice and steady over time. Popped up 15 sessions and the rMSSD under 48, sitting there was fine and then po I thought I figured something out and my experience of those sessions actually was being more enthusiastic, enjoying it more and actually really really being in the zone.
So my conclusion from all of this is that infact that the good news for the viewers in Chicago is that flow actually does conform with the experience that I had, and I am actually pretty happy to the 48 score conforms that as well. However the surprise for me was my movement into flow and my actual emotion around that is totally subjective belief and not something that’s outside of myself.
The next step of course would be to look to go for more on the anxiety piece, but you can follow on QuantSelfLaFontane and tweet as LaFont and I put half of these studies up online at my blog at QuantSelfLaFontane.com
Thanks so much