New Frontiers in Heart Rate Variability and Social Coherence Research: Techniques, Technologies, and Implications for Improving Group Dynamics and Outcomes

Front Public Health. 2017 Oct 12:5:267. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2017.00267. eCollection 2017.


Concepts embraced by the term coherence have been identified as central to fields such as quantum physics, physiology, and social science. There are different types of coherence, although the term always implies a harmonious relationship, correlations and connections between the various parts of a system. A specific measure derived from heart rate variability (HRV) provides a measure of physiological coherence. Another type of coherence, social coherence, relates to the harmonious alignment between couples or pairs, family units, small groups, or larger organizations in which a network of relationships exists among individuals who share common interests and objectives. A high degree of social coherence is reflected by stable and harmonious relationships, which allows for the efficient flow and utilization of energy and communication required for optimal collective cohesion and action. Social coherence requires that group members are attuned and are emotionally connected with each other, and that the group's emotional energy is organized and regulated by the group as a whole. A number of studies are reviewed which have explored various types of synchronization in infants, pairs and groups, indicating that feelings of cooperation, trust, compassion and increased prosocial behaviors depends largely on the establishment of a spontaneous synchronization of various physiological rhythms between individuals. This article discusses a new application using HRV monitoring in social coherence research and the importance of physiological synchronization in group developmental processes and dynamics. Building on the extensive body of research showing that providing feedback of HRV coherence level at the individual level can improve self-regulation, we suggest the following hypotheses: (1) providing feedback of individual and collective HRV coherence and the degree of heart rhythm synchronization will increase group coherence, and heart rhythm synchronization among group members. (2) Training in techniques to increase group coherence and heart rhythm synchronization will correlate with increased prosocial behaviors, such as kindness and cooperation among individuals, improved communication, and decreases in social discord and adversarial interactions. (3) Biomagnetic fields produced by the heart may be a primary mechanism in mediating HRV synchronization among group members. Data supporting each of the hypothesis is discussed.

Keywords: coherence; entrainment; heart rate variability; self-regulation; social; synchronization.