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Higher Heart Rate Variability + An Ego-Decentred Mind = Wise Reasoning

You know how sometimes we say we’re too close to the problem to make a good decision?  Well, now, new research supports this very notion by explaining the connection between the heart and the mind and how physiological effects combined with our cognitive approach to evaluation, affects our ability to be wise.

Research by Grossmann et al. (2016) suggests that our ability to be wise is affected by two major factors: our heart rate variability (the time lapse between each heartbeat) and an ego-decentred state of mind (a self-distanced mental state).  The research complements the wealth of research conducted by the HeartMath Institute that demonstrates that higher heart rate variability is associated with better mental functioning.

Higher heart rate variability occurs when we are calm and relaxed and the heart produces gentle rolling-hills-like waves when viewed on an ECG.  When our heart produces these ordered heartbeat patterns with greater time lapses between them (higher heart rate variability), when communicating with and instructing the body’s organs and the brain, the mind and body work in harmony resulting in good physical health and good cognitive abilities.

Now, we can have high heart rate variability (HRV) but still be egocentric and so make decisions that still only really serve us.  The researchers state, “When processing information in an egocentric fashion, high-HRV people may be very efficient. However, egocentric high-HRV people may choose to attend accurately to the self-serving features of the social issue at hand, discounting the non-self-serving features, including interests and opinions of other individuals involved in the issue. Similarly, high-HRV people who are particularly prone to egocentrism may generate a multitude of reasons for one’s favored opinion, resulting in a greater likelihood of discounting likely, but unfavorable views.”

The current study shows that when we have a higher HRV and become ego-decentred, e.g. (a) recognise that we may have limited knowledge about an issue, (b) recognise that the world is in a state of flux , (c) consider other people’s perspectives, and (d) try to integrate different viewpoints of two or more people…then we are most wise.

Gaining Wisdom: Applications Of This Wise Reasoning Approach

The everyday applications we’re familiar with are when we consult with a third person like a coach or a “level-headed” friend or family member because we’re struggling to do this wise-thinking for ourselves because we “feel to close to the problem” or are in a conflict with our spouse or family member or friend about an issue. So how do we reach a high HRV and ego-decentred state of mind when dealing with our own problems without outside help?

Achieving A Higher Heart Rate Variability (HRV)

Ask yourself what helps you to reach a calm state.  Is it going for a brisk walk, lifting weights, swimming, yoga, meditation, dancing, relaxing in a sauna, cleaning, painting, writing, or something else?  For some it’s using a simple breathing exercise or listening to a certain song that always makes them feel good or recalling a certain great memory.

Whatever works for you, do it, so that you can reach a slower heart rate, i.e. a higher HRV.

Achieving An Ego-Decentred State Of Mind

Ask yourself questions that lift you out of the “I” centred viewpoint and give you a broader, wiser perspective.

In the experiment this was achieved by instructing participants in the ego-decentred, self-distanced condition to ‘‘focus on the situation’’ and “use third-person (he/she) pronouns and their name as much as possible as they tried to understand the thoughts they had”.  Notice how this contrasts with the instructions given to the participants in the ego-centred, self-immersed condition which were to ‘‘immerse themselves in the situation’’ and ‘‘use the pronouns I/me as much as possible’’.

After testing 150 participants, the results were clear.  Those with a higher HRV and ego-decentred, self-distanced viewpoint were able to give wiser, less biased judgments.  So when it comes to your life and whether you’re questioning yourself or someone else, you might find it helpful to ask questions like:

  • When (insert own name) focuses on the situation what does he/she understand/sense/see?
  • Why does (insert own name) behave in this way and what might be a better way to behave given his/her goal?
  • Why is (insert name of other person) treating (insert own name) in this manner?
  • What does (insert name of other person)’s behaviour tell (insert own name) about their feelings and intentions?
  • Which situational factors must be taken into account when evaluating the current dynamic in the relationship?
  • What is the lesson that (insert own name) needs to learn from this repeat occurrence?
  • Is (insert own name) only dealing in facts or is he/she assuming things unknown?
  • What will help (insert own name) to break this unhelpful relationship pattern he/she always indulges?
  • Why does (insert own name) allow people to always treat him/her this way and what does he/she need to do change it?
  • If (insert own name) was able to see where (insert name of other person) was coming from, what would he/she glean?
  • Why do (insert own name) and (insert name of other person) keep fighting and keep hitting obstacles?
  • What needs to happen for (insert own name) to become motivated to achieve his/her goals?

Use these questions to come up with more of your own and remember to mentally pull back to get a broader, ego-decentred view of a situation, all the while aiming to understand things from a place of wisdom rather than from just your first person, ego-centred perspective.

Rather than remaining stuck in one place for months, years or even decades of your life, start using this wise reasoning strategy by (a) manipulating your physiology to achieve a steady, slow heart rate and then (b) looking at your problems from an ego-decentred perspective.  By doing so you will solve the answers to your life challenges more easily and swiftly.