One of my favorite items at CES was HeartMath’s emWave PSR, a biofeedback device that’s supposed to help you “balance your autonomic nervous system.” Doing that is supposed to put you in that famous zone where your performance at just about any task is elevated, like the athlete who says she can’t miss a shot or the ball she’s swinging at looks like a watermelon. What psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.”
To bring you to this promised land, the emWave watches your pulse, but the goal isn’t to lower your heart rate, as you might expect–it’s to smooth out the rhythm, regardless of what your pulse is. HeartMath says they have 17 years of research of their own research plus published, peer-reviewed studies showing that a smooth pulse indicates the balance, or “coherence,” of your sympathetic nervous system (which triggers stress responses) and your parasympathetic nervous system (which triggers calming responses). Which is nice.
The emWave PSR itself is very simple: A rectangular device about the size of an Altoids box connects to a PC and to a clip that attaches to your ear lobe and monitors your pulse. The box has a light that moves back and forth (think KITT’s scanner), showing the proper breathing rhythm. Meanwhile the PC shows a graph of your nervous-system coherence, and this biofeedback is essential to the project–once you have a clear idea of what internal process achieves the desired result, it becomes easier to focus on and reproduce that. It’s like a shipwrecked person who’s trying to learn to wiggle his ears finally finds a mirror.
Here’s a video I shot of me using the device. (I was watching my coherence graph on the computer through my camera. This was apparently the first time in emWave history that such a thing has happened.) The top graph shows my pulse–the smoother, the better. Bottom-left is the level of coherence. Bottom-right shows coherence broken down into three bins: low (red), medium (blue), and high (green). In the video, I move from 57/10/33 to 49/19/32, which I’m told is good. But this video only shows the end of my session–when I started, I was basically a nervous wreck, as the coherence graph in the lower-left shows.
I can’t at all say whether the emWave would lead to a long-term improvement in your state of mind (state of heart?), but it was soothing at the time, and I did find myself trying to reproduce that feeling in myself later in the day. Also, the emWave finished second in CES’ Last Gadget Standing competition.
HeartMath is not at all the only company doing biofeedback, although the emWave PSR, at $200, is more affordable than most other devices. For the better part of a decade, other companies have used biofeedback, generally to help people meditate and relax rather than get into the zone, as emWave does. Some users report way more success using biofeedback than years of meditation practice at ashrams, and one company touts a positive review from the Dalai Lama himself.