Fort-Six Meditations

I was pulling data yesterday preparing my speech for the Quantified Self Conference & Expo. I have been collecting heart rate variability (HRV) readings since October during conversations with work colleagues. My hypothesis was that I could train myself to be like a conversational ninja and outwit people using my physiology.

ConvoNinja

I had to ensure I could bring myself to a relaxed state by practicing sitting in a meditative state each morning for five minutes. l talk about the value of this in my tutorial post “By Yourself – Basic Training.”  I wanted to train myself to get to calm in five minutes or less.

For these sessions, I use Heartmath emWave pro because it has a very clear interface. It uses an ear clip that ties to software on my laptop and this is the dashboard I see during the session:

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I can see my HRV wave on the top part of the screen and get a score on how I am doing on the bottom. I don’t recommend the emWave pro based on its high price. You can use a phone-based app for the same five-minute session. But I have one so I use it.

In prepping the speech, I pulled the data on 46 meditative sessions to see if I was getting fight/flight readings when I was purposely downshifting my physiology. These sessions were spread out over multiple months and consisted of 17,872 heart beats. I analyzed these beats looking for fight/flight incidents using a technique I outline in my HRV Tutorial. The number of fight/flight incidents?

bagel

That’s right, zero. Over all of those sessions, I did not have a single incident of extended fight/flight during those sessions. So I had in my Basic Training learned how to bring myself to a relaxed and refreshed state very consistently.

I’ll be talking how I wove this training into my conversational experiences as part of my speech for the conference. I’ll also be rehearsing this speech this Wednesday at the first Denver Quantified Self Meetup. If you are in the area stop on by.

Facing the Big Boss

Have you every had to give a briefing to the Big Boss, the Boss above the person you report to? And in that have you ever gotten this look?

Uhappy Big Boss

And when you got that look your brain just froze? You could not think of what to say? The start point for my work in Quantified Self was to try and understand that “freeze” phenomenon and how to train myself to experience it less. I negotiate a lot for business and my hypothesis was that control of physiological reactions in meetings could make me a more effective negotiator.

I had an excellent opportunity to see how I was doing this week as I briefed not one, but SIX Big Bosses. Nine people total were in the room. One Boss had showed up uninvited because he opposed the concepts being discussed. And to make matters even more fun, I was told I was the primary presenter thirty minutes before the meeting. After hearing that I thought, “This will be a great HRV reading.”

The meeting was on a controversial topic and several of the Big Bosses did not agree on how to resolve it. I had been asked a few weeks earlier to help create a resolution. We were scheduled for an hour. There were two points in meeting I remember feeling the “brain freeze” moment and had to push on by looking at the slide and restarting my mental engine. Because of the late notice that I was the presenter I could not use my standard practice of memorizing the material prior to a high intensity presentation. Here is my reading for the session:

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This reading recalls the shape of the meeting very well. At the start each of Big Bosses tried to steer the meeting toward a resolution they thought was best. Big Bosses can’t help it, they get paid to steer. The Biggest Boss kept coming back to “let’s let him go through the material.” The dark blue from interval 426 to 2996 was me trying to get a word in edgewise.

In the middle of the meeting I had made my points and the Big Bosses began debating the merits of the resolution. As the spotlight moved from me I did deep breathing, listened and took notes. My memory of that period was that my brain was turned back on and I could feel a lighter feeling in my chest and head. The reading shows that I dropped from Fight/Flight as indicated by the white spaces from interval 2996 to around 6000.

Then the Biggest Boss said something to the effect that the resolution I had presented was incomplete. You can see around interval 6000 I go back into Fight/Flight as I was trying to explain how the missing part he was concerned with actually was completed. This lasted for a good period because other Big Bosses saw this as an opportunity to re-introduce their specific personal points and we were off and running. It was in this period I recall a specific “freeze” moment regarding a question on a detail that I resolved by having the group look at a different slide.

Finally I was able to get the Big Bosses to turn to the last slide where there was a collective “Oh, here it is” and you can see around interval 8900 my physiology begins to relax. The part of the resolution they were looking for was there. To my recollection the room relaxed as well. Some jokes where shared and people began to prepare to summarize and end the meeting.

During this hour long meeting I was in Fight/Flight 46% of the time, a full 27 minutes. I can’t reveal any details of the meeting, but I can believe that quality of my answers was more reactive and less thought out during those two periods. My personal variability training did make an important contribution as I was able to break up the 27 minutes into two periods that each had a specific topic I was “fighting” to make. In the first period I was concentrating on getting my main points across. Once done I was able to use my breathing and get myself to a relaxed state where I had ticked the box of “points made.” When the second period started I was only “fighting” to show the one completion point. I believe that if I had not allowed myself a completion state in the middle I would not have been as focussed on a single point which I was able to make in the end.

To see how much the environment like a meeting can change very rapidly, I had the opportunity to measure a meeting immediately after the meeting recorded above. As in I walked from the conference room for that meeting to the office for the meeting in a period of five minutes. I already had the kit ready so I just hit “record” for the second meeting.

In this second meeting I was brainstorming with a colleague on how to handle a problem that would play out over several months. There was no urgency, the colleague and I get on well and we were coming up with good ideas. Here is the reading:

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That means I came from a pretty intense Big Boss meeting where there was a lot of Fight/Flight, did a BreatheSync session for two minutes and entered the second meeting. In this one there was very little Fight/Flight at all and it was a very productive 35 minutes.

Breathing tools, understanding how the physiology reacts when meeting with the Big Bosses and finding the balance between Fight/Flight and relaxation can improve both how you prepare, and how you ramp yourself down when in an intense situation. And these same tools allow a fast transition to a new environment where you can be productive as appropriate for the situation.

I will be presenting more about how I use heart rate variability at the Quantifed Self Conference and Expo in San Francisco June 18 – 20. I look forward to it and I look forward to meeting many of you there.

Feedback While Training – Stayfit & Breathe Sync

When I started looking at Heart Rate Variability (HRV) as a tool to train myself I was drawing on my experience using heart rate monitors for physical training. When I went for a run I would see my heart rate in real time and adjust my exertion accordingly. I found this a powerful way to both increase my fitness and extend my training by not overdoing it.

Most of the apps today either lack context on the data they gather or give you a passive report on a past period of time. For example, the Jawbone UP tells you your steps but it is up to you to index that against other measures to see if you are improving your fitness. Multiple HRV apps will give you a coherence or stress reading after a session is complete. Two apps I am using now structure the feedback in ways that make the experience more interactive and provide good enough context for a user to take action in real time.

Stayfit by Marco Altini. I have just started using this app and really like it. It does not use HRV, but it creates very nice context by indexing resting heart rate against daily exertion. A quick measure of resting heart rate in the morning is very easy to do, then watching your exertion the rest of the day helps you work on fitness. The interface is very clean:

stayfit-app-pic

I find that I look at it often during the day to watch my kilocalories expended and make adjustments to my schedule and activities to increase exertion for the day. It is only available on iOS is its only drawback.

Breathe Sync by Michael Townsend Williams. I have written about this app in an earlier post and still have it as one of my go to apps. The reason is that its primary use case is to bring you back to a coherent and relaxed state very simply and quickly. It does give a measurment but that is a secondary part of the experience. The camera on your phone picks up your heart beats and then shows with a simple blue and white ring visual how your heart rate is slowing or speeding up as you see here:

breathesync-pic

Over the course of the session the ring visual will allow you to match your breath with the increase and decrease of the interval between heart beats. Very powerful and effective. I use it when I feel amped up or just prior to a meeting to get into a balanced place.

The context of indexing one measure against another in Stayfit and the very active intervention quality in Breathe Sync put them both on my daily use list. Ultimately I want to train myself to use awareness and respiration to set myself “in the zone” when it comes time to negotiate, interview and brainstorm in a professional setting. These two apps are great tools as I work on getting there.

Superpower Series: The Working Session

You can use measurements of your heart rate variability (HRV) to improve how effectively you concentrate when you work. When engaged in thoughtful work on your own and your prefrontal cortex is fully engaged your heart rate variability will be high enough that you will not show sustained stress. My experience applying techniques that kept me engaged yielded more output and I felt more relaxed when the session was over.

I had explored work session hygiene techniques in past work  that I called returning to poise. In those sessions I had discovered that I was more engaged and less stressed when:

  • I set aside a fixed period of time from 25 to 30 minutes,
  •  there was only one topic I focussed on for that period,
  • when I was distracted I used steady breathing to bring my attention back to my task,
  • the task at hand was the “right one” and no thoughts of being elsewhere intruded.

Here are four working sessions and how the measurements corresponded with how effectively I used the hygiene techniques. In all sessions I was working in the same office at roughly the same time of day. The topic was the same in all sessions, and I was working alone in the office on my computer doing planning for organizational alignment.

In the first session, I worked without using any of the hygiene factors. I simply put on the heart rate belt and worked. This is the graph of the session:

Slide1

You can see periodic stress points, where my sympathetic nervous system was firing and it is probable that my prefrontal cortex was not in full gear. I was not doing my best thinking. I logged that I was not sure there was not more important work I should have been doing. This distracted me, and I did not see good results.

Contrast this to a second session of similar length where the topic was important, I had the time set aside and was focussed. You can see the graph here:

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Far fewer periods where I was in fight/flight mode. It appears that my belief in the importance of the task reduced the amount of stress. In a 40 minute session again my concentration was high based on the belief I was working on the most important task possible and that I was in the “right place at the right time.”

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You can see that even for a longer session the number of fight/flight events were singular and fewer in number. The other hygiene techniques all were in place. The reason for the 40 minutes session was that I engaged enough that I blew right through the time limit.

Finally, I was able to have all the hygiene factors in place for a shorter session and in that I had no fight/flight incidents at all. Here is the graph:

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So when working alone it is possible to improve your concentration by developing techniques to keep yourself focussed. When so focussed, your HRV will reflect that you are physiologically in an state of complete engagement. And you will see much improved work output.

Heart Rate Belts, Phone Cameras and Convenience

I had a chance to have a coffee with Marco Altini, the builder of the Heart Rate Variability Logger app that I often use to take readings. I enjoyed the discussion as Marco is very knowledgeable on the topic of heart rate variability. I took some key insights away that will help me set direction for future studies.

During the discussion he told me he is focussing on his app that support physical training, HRV4Training. He prefers to work on this because in addition to a bluetooth heart rate belt the user can choose to take a reading with the camera on the phone. Marco thinks that the convenience of using the camera makes it more accessible.

I agree with him. In my own work I often to not take advantage of readings because I don’t have the belt on and simply don’t feel like putting it on. Just this week I did one reading while conducting an interview using the belt, and I did not take readings on numerous meetings that would have given me good data for further study.

And while pushing into new areas of study such as heart rate variability during negotiations, or while giving a speech, it is not going to work to have a finger on a smart phone camera. To only use the camera would confine readings to stationary sessions where no activity was allowed. There is much more to learn than taking readings in only a motionless state.

So I am going to start incorporating smart phone camera useage into my work and share the results here. Marco has done a workup of how his apps use the camera to compare well with the Polar H7. We have to figure out a way to make this accessible, and useful, so more people can train for improved personal performance using heart rate variability.

Superpower Series: Introduction

Our strength as a species that can envision a potential future is also the source of our greatest perceptual error. We tend to freeze a picture in place as a goal and once a situation is to our satisfaction we will want to maintain that situation frozen permanently.

This mechanism is effective when we want to achieve an outcome. We see something we want to build in our minds and keep it fixed until we see the outcome achieved. This same mechanism backfires when we try to freeze a situation in place despite it being dynamic by nature.

When we picture relaxation or stress reduction, we picture permanent relaxation frozen in time. Our expectation is that we will enter a permanent state of enlightenment where everything will be calm and ok from that point on.

Our work here is about finding the variability in our physiology so we can compare it to external circumstances. We naturally physically accelerate and relax as we go through life. These up and down reactions can come from our circumstances, or it can come from our imagination. When we are reacting to our circumstances we are in alignment with what is real and reacting appropriately.

When we react with our imagination we can be reacting to fictions, and fictions can make us accelerate when it is not necessary. So our goal is not to dumb down our accelerations or artificially amp ourselves up, it is to accelerate when circumstances call for it and to rest when no acceleration is needed.

If you want to learn more about developing a Superpower read about Basic Training.

Superpower Series: Variability Basic Training

Before you begin taking readings in work sessions and meetings you have to become familiar with the pattern and connection between your circumstances, Heart Rate Variability (HRV), and breath. Your breath rate signals to your nervous system whether your circumstance calls for an accelerated state, or a relaxed nervous state. Conducting repeated sessions will allow you to see the relationship.

Exercise: Using basic kit take a measurement each morning for five minutes. While doing so, breathe six times a minute. That means breath in five seconds and out for five seconds. You can start with a smaller period if you are uncomfortable  and need to practice. Even at smaller intervals make the breaths even and consistent. Afterward look at the intervals between heart beats to see how well your breath and HRV relate to each other.

If you are relaxed the measure of RR intervals will go up and down evenly with your breath. This means your Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is applying the brake to put you in rest and digest state. Here is a graph of my RR intervals during a five minute session in a completely relaxed state:

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I have had many sessions where despite regular breathing I could not enter a relaxed state. Here is a session where I was thoughtful about a variety of to do’s while trying to bring myself to a relaxed state. These Upsets were evident in the graph of my RR intervals:
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You can see in the intervals have periods where there is not much variability. My thought process was accelerating my Sympathetic Nervous System even though I was sitting quietly breathing in a regular rhythm. In another session I was generally relaxed and in the zone then had a thought that interrupted my flow. I let the through go and returned to breathing and recaptured my variability. You can see the interruption and return in the red circle.

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In another session on two occasions I had Upsets in the flow of the session and was able to recover twice. You can see these episodes in the red circles in this chart.

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The exercise of breathing regularly and taking your HRV measurement for five minutes a day will give you a baseline for when your system is Upset by different thoughts, and when it is responding to your breath while relaxed.

If you want to learn more about developing a Superpower read about Giving a Speech.

Why Apple Watch Will Not Be Accurate on Stress Readings

With the imminent launch of the Apple Watch it is clear that everyone is looking to it for new functionality and inevitably there will be claims you can reduce stress using it. I wanted to look into whether the device could reliably deliver on that promise.

applewatch

The watch reportedly can read heart rate by taking pulse readings from the wrist using pulse oximetry, a method that uses light pulses to read heart beats by measuring the change in skin color due to different levels of blood flow. Pulse oximetry is refined enough for reading heart rate, but Heart Rate Variability (HRV) demands precision that pulse oximetry reportedly cannot deliver.

I am interested in using HRV to improve personal performance in working sessions, face to face meetings, negotiations and public speaking. I thought it would be interesting to be able to use an Apple Watch to read HRV and improve those skills. So I wanted to test pulse oximetry myself.
MIO

I don’t have an Apple Watch, so I connected a Mio Velo wrist worn band to the SweetbeatLife app on an iPhone. The Mio product claims to deliver “EKG-accurate heart rate data” and uses pulse oximetry, so this would be my proxy for an Apple Watch.

H7

To compare this setup with readings from electrical signals I connected a Polar H7 to Marco Altini’s Heart Rate Variability Logger on an iPod Touch. This would allow me to take two readings of a single heart beat and compare the methods. After wrangling settings and conflicting signalling I got them both to work.

My goal was to use my Parasympathetic Flatline method when comparing the pulse oximetry with electrical readings using a heart rate belt. This means I am looking for 10 consecutive heart beat intervals that vary less than 17 milliseconds from beat to beat. When I find these strings of beats I am measuring myself in a fight/flight state.

Researching pulse oximetry I found a research paper that said that physical movement introduced errors in readings making pulse oximetry unreliable for measuring HRV when subjects were in motion. The conclusion was that pulse oximetry “is unlikely to prove a practical alternative to the ECG in ambulatory recordings or recordings made during other activities.”

negotiating

My interest is looking at activities like negotiating, meeting and coding where there is not a lot of physical movement. With the study providing some potential for pulse oximetry to provide some value to my area of interest, it seemed reasonable that readings when relaxed would be similar and when walking very different.

I conducted sessions in a relaxed state, working by myself on the computer, in meetings and while walking. I first conducted the dual measurements while in a relaxed state for ten minutes. I sat and did not move and breathed in an even rhythm. Subjectively I think I was in fight/flight for 25% of the time because sitting motionless allowed me to think about all the things I was not getting done. Here is a graph of the two readings:

Slide06

The pulse oximetry reading was that I was in fight/flight 87% of the time and that is way overstated. The P7 said 32% and that was much closer to my experience. So the relaxed state had a completely different outcome than my hypothesis.

Next I measured myself when I was in a working session, which meant I had structured some time to work on my computer without interruption. I was working on some recruiting matters which meant screening resumes. It was very focused work and I felt relaxed. I would have said I was 10% at most in fight/flight. My session was 16 minutes long, and here are the charts:

Slide07

The pulse oximetry reading said I was in fight/flight 57% of the time. This did not remotely match my experience. The H7 reading said I experienced no fight/flight at all. There were accelerations, but none that were more than 9 beats. So though I’m not sure it was a perfect session it was clear that the H7 more closely matched my experience.

I also took readings during the first and second half of a long staff meeting. I was not the host, I was a participant. There were some controversial things being discussed so I would have subjectively said I was in fight/flight 15% of the time. Here is the chart for the first half of the meeting:

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You can see the pulse oximetry said I was at 62% fight/flight, H7 10%. Here is the chart for the second half:

Slide09

Pulse Oximetry had me at 63% and H7 at 1%. The H7 seemed low because there were a few moments where I was definitely in a heightened state, but an average under 10% is much close to the perceived 15% than a consistent reading by the Apple Watch equivalent of over 60%. That just made no sense.

I took measurements while walking. I had low expectations because I had taken readings when exercising and know that HRV is low when physically active. Here is the chart as I took my first walk to the train from work.

Slide10

I walk briskly so I expected a 60% to 75% reading here. What you see is Oximetry at 91% and H7 at 67%. Again oximetry was high. Here is my reading for leaving the train and going to the pickup point:

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What is interesting here is my wife picked me up about a third of the way through the reading and I relaxed in the car chatting with her as she drove me home. The H7 clearly shows me moving from an accelerated state to more relaxed, which was my experience. The oximetry reading shows continued stress. Again the H7 reading matched the experience.

So what conclusion can we draw from comparing pulse oximetry as used by Apple Watch to electrical readings from chest worn heart rate belts? In the range of activity from sitting motionless to walking briskly the pulse oximetry method overstates stress.

So your Apple Watch is not the best tool to measure stress response using HRV. When you read, “Physicians and digital health experts are encouraged by the level of accuracy suggested by the Apple Watch’s sensors,” remember that pulse oximetry will overstate your stress. In a world of stress the last thing you need is to have it overstated.

Superpower Series: Why You Should Memorize Your Speeches

One superpower that some people seem to have mastered is the ability to stand in front of a group of people and give a speech. For most people it is the most stressful of events, up there with losing a job and divorce. So how can you use Heart Rate Variability (HRV) to keep your fight or flight mode from kicking in and you entering a panic state in front of the group?

Well, it does not appear you can avoid the fight or flight response standing in front of a group of people. From measurements I have taken when speaking I think that the only strategy you can employ is to have more material embedded in memory so you just speak automatically without having the engage your prefontal cortex.

The mechanics of this are straightforward. When you are in fight/flight your body optimizes blood flow to get you out of danger. Blood flows to your limbs and the back of your brain, allowing you to maximize your ability to react. When you are in this reaction mode your thinking brain is offline. You can’t wing it when your thinking brain is offline.

I took readings while speaking at two different Quantified Self meetups. This is a very sympathetic crowd. There is no pressure to perform for this crown. And I have experience speaking publicly, from corporate engagements to speaking competitions for Toastmasters. I enjoy public speaking, so I should be on the more relaxed end of the spectrum. The data shows that even experienced speakers are not immune to the stress of presenting to groups.

As a baseline for compare readings from a meeting with senior people that I am working for as I presented in an earlier post. This was a high intensity meeting where I was expected to present information. The graph shows with blue bars where I experienced the fight/flight impulse.


Slide4
Readings on a speech I did at the meetup July 28th of 2014 showed how much stress the system kicks in when on a stage. I started the measurement about five minutes before the speech and did some breathing exercises to see if that would have an effect on my measurements. Here is me giving the speech.

Qs Speech

The breathing exercises did help kick in my relaxation response for the first five minutes of the reading. Once I got to the podium, however, the fight/flight kicked in. I spoke for 14 minutes and answered questions for ten minutes. You can see the readings in this graph: The red box shows the period in which the speaking portion of the presentation took place.

Slide1

A second speech showed a similar pattern. In March of 2015 I spoke again at a Quantified Self meetup to a smaller group. Again a very sympathetic group. I knew the material and was pleased to be presenting. This was a shorter speech, five minutes speaking and five minutes of Q&A. You can see from the chart and the red box that the during speaking portion I was almost entirely in fight/flight state.

Slide2

Why this is important is  as described above the pre-frontal cortex is offline when in this state. Meaning that you can’t think through what you are going to say in real time when you are on the podium. You are in reaction mode. So rehearse the material. When a slide comes up, you react to what you have memorized. I have had experience of “watching” myself giving a speech when I have memorized the material and am bouncing along well. And I have had the experience of freezing in place when I had nothing in my deep memory to react to. And I just stared blankly at the audience.

So memorize your material before you get up to speak. Your physiology will ensure your brain is offline. If you react well throughout the speech you will give a great speech. Even this guy had to memorize his speech:

Braveheart

HRV Tutorial – Measurement Times

One important dimension of your measuring that is important to understand is how the length of time that you measure. Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is the variability of your heartbeats over a period of time. The standard readings (rMSSD, pNN50, etc) are based on some reading over a specific period.

That means if you are studying the effect of eating donuts on your HRV you need to ensure that reading 1 and reading 2 have approximately the same length (5 secs, 30 secs, 2 mins, etc). I prefer 30 seconds snapshots. Readings of different lengths are apples and oranges because you are getting an average over that time period.

If you eat a donut and read your HRV for 5 minutes the reading will an average for the 5. Eat the second donut a day later and read for 35 minutes you will get the average for 35 minutes. If your blood sugar changes more during the 35 minutes simply because your body has more time to digest it will look like a lower number on day 2 and you may draw wrong conclusions based on an error of measurement.

If all other variables are kept constant and you vary the measurement times you will get incompatible readings. Make sure you keep an eye on your timer and know that the similar timing of your readings are your most important source of useable measurements.

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