Category Archives: Psychological Flow

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:

Slide1

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:

Slide2

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.

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Parasympathetic Flatline Talking versus Listening

I wanted to look at how often I entered the Parasympathetic Flatline while in a 1:1 conversation with a colleague by phone. For the discussion I read by heart beat intervals using a Polar H7 heart rate belt and the Heart Rate Variability Logger app for iOS. I also recorded my side of the meeting on a smart phone. When the meeting was complete I downloaded my heart beat intervals via csv file and pulled them into excel. Once in excel I used a formula mechanism I created that graphs segments where more than 10 consecutive interbeat intervals are less than 17 milliseconds apart.

During the 60 minutes session I measured 4,451 heart beats and the intervals between them. Of those intervals, 14% were in groups of consecutive intervals that were close together, meaning during 14% of the meeting I was in what I call Parasympathetic Flatline. This measured the periods where I was in fight/flight mode during the discussion.

Here is a vizualization of the meeting:

Slide1

In the session the forty-seven stress events triggered. Of these, 22 of 47 occurred when I was talking and presenting information to my colleague. 25, or 53%, occurred when I was listening to my colleague.  When listening to the recording, it is clear that the stress event, even when occurring when I am talking, begin when I was no agreeing with my colleagues response or trying to move him to a different position. The stress response was a result of not liking the direction the conversation was going.

Again physiology has shown that anticipating and trying to shape another person’t response is the source of stress in a 1:1 interaction. I once thought presenting my own opinion was a source of stress but that has turned out not to be the case. The stress, it appears, is not agreeing with someone else presenting their opinion.

Added clarification: From Twitter, fellow QS’er Gustavo (@GGlusman) asked the percentage of time I was talking versus not. Pushed by the question I went back beat by beat and looked at the session. As I reported above 736 beats were “in stress ” meaning that those beats were in a grouping with more than ten beats that occurred with a difference in beat interval less in 17 milliseconds to the adjacent beat. Of those beats in stress, I found that 238 were while I was talking and the remainder while listening. So that means 38.5% of the stress beats occurred while I was talking, 61.5% while I was listening. Impatience while listening was clearly more stress creating than flapping my gums. Thanks to Gustavo for asking the clarifying question!

Using the Parasympathetic Flatline

Using the Parasympathetic Flatline I analyzed a discussion with a colleague. I was following up on a topic that was not controversial. We had discussed this topic about a month prior. The colleague and I get along in a positive way.  So this should have been a relatively stress free and short meeting.

I used Marco Altini’s Heart Rate Variability Logger and a Polar H7 heart rate monitor to gather the base data while recording the meeting with my smart phone. Pulling that data into a spreadsheet I used my Parasympathetic Flatline model to determine at what point in the meeting I was experiencing physiological stress. I pulled the recording, the heart rate variability readings and the transcript into a timeline graph.

Slide1

What we see here is when I talked (green), when my colleague talked (blue) and when I was experiencing a physiological event of what I call Parasympathetic Flatline (red), or stress. There are specific points in the discussion when I was amped up, but they were not what I expected.

I had a hypothesis that I was entering these states when I was putting myself “out there,” however I had one moment about 3/4 of the way through the meeting where I really pushed the boundary of a sensitive topic but I did not experience stress. I was synched with my colleague and the discussion did not trigger stress at that point.

There were four points in the discussion, however, that I entered a heightened state when I wanted the conversation to go in a different direction. My agenda was not being followed. In the first two, early in the conversation, I wanted to hear the answer to the question more directly. I was impatient. In the second two, I had the information I needed and wanted to wrap up.

It appears that difficult topics are not stress inducing when discussing them with a colleague when we are in synch, but my overall judgements about the progress of the discussion seem to trigger an aroused state. It is our judgements about the situation that may be the source of stress.

Testing the Parasympathetic Flatline

Last week I proposed measuring a Parasympathetic Flatline (PS Flatline) where at least ten successive heart beat intervals were close together. This differs from using 30 second averages for rMSSD, a time based measure of average intervals. I wanted to to a side by side comparison to see which of these methods more accurately could point me to moments when I triggered a shutdown of my Parasympathetic Nervous System which allowed the fight or flight reaction to run things.

I measured several meetings where I was able to audio record the proceedings while measuring my heart rate. I used my Android phone to record the audio, a Polar H7 heart rate belt to pick up my heart rate and Marco Altini’s Heart Rate Variability Logger to capture the data. Afterward, I downloaded the csv files for both the rr intervals and the 30 second rMSSD.

The meeting was 55 minutes long and included one person in the room with me and one person on the phone. We were discussing a topic I was comfortable with and an activity I had experience doing. I was briefing my colleagues on a time schedule and details. I was in a relaxed state going into the meeting and did a short two minute breathing reset using BreatheSync prior to the meeting.

In previous studies I had determined that a 30 second rMSSD under 48 was probably a stress state. I had used several stress events to create this baseline. When looking at this meeting, however, I was disappointed to see that using this method definitely overstated the number of stress states. The graph below shows blue bars where I had a 30 second rMSSD under 48 and you can see it shows I was in that state for much of the meeting.

Slide1

This was not my experience of the meeting. I had the facts to hand, we had a good discussion and overall it was a friendly, informative discussion. So the 30 second rMSSD had not done the job for this meeting. I then looked at the PS Flatline that would show when my beat to beat intervals were less than 17 milliseconds for 10 consecutive beats. Here is what the meeting looked like using the PS Flatline.

Slide2

Listening to the audio I could definitely see that this method caught moments that had me shifting into high gear. I chose this meeting because there was a point at the fifteen minute mark where my information was completely wrong and I felt the flush of embarrassment. This came through accurately in the chart. It also showed several moments where I was trying to calculate sums with an audience and I needed to shift into gear and focus. You can see on the chart different elements of the meeting I heard in the audio and my memory of what was happening.

So the PS Flatline approach seems to be much more accurate though I have to do further analysis on other meetings to ensure it is catching all of the stress trigger events. I have 10 additional meetings recorded with audio and HRV so i will start crunching those number next.

Finding the Parasympathetic Flat Line

From the start I have wanted to pinpoint the moment I was stressing out and identify the causes. I started with logging Upsets, then moved to using different devices to read Heart Rate Variability (HRV). I was always bothered by the lack of precision in how the devices give insight into HRV. They never said “you were stressed from the 15th to the 45th second.” Rather, they gave an average score over a longer and generalized period of time. I want to nail down the specific time my physiology starts and stops going berserk. To understand precisely when this is happening I have to look at  RR Interbeat intervals (pictured below) and find those periods in the readings where I have multiple consecutive intervals with very little variability.

Slide1

When in stress mode the distance between successive beats for multiple beats remains very nearly the same. This occurs when the Parasympathetic Nervous System (rest & digest) flat lines and lets the Sympathetic Nervous System (fight or flight) run the show. Here are graphs of my RR Intervals for a similar time period using slow breathing to create a calm state described in last week’s blog post and a session on an elliptical where I was exercising and my heart rate was 145 beats per minute.

Slide2

You can see that the RR Intervals vary while calm, and there is no variability at all while exercising. While running the Sympathetic Nervous System has the hammer down. In relaxation the Parasympathetic Nervous Systems is braking the machine and providing periodic slowdown. That means that even while resting and digesting our RR interbeat intervals are close to the same values for 32% of the time (red circled areas).

Slide4

When reading HRV the fundamental output is the RR interval. All analysis is derived from that one string of numbers which are simply the number of milliseconds between beats. So it is straightforward to find periods in readings where those intervals are close together. Looking at the raw data I hypothesized that the Parasympathetic Nervous System is flat lined when the variance is small for 10 consecutive beat to beat intervals.

Slide5

I then looked at how a rule of 10 consecutive intervals would work for my readings of the calm state and while exercising. The maximum number of low variance intervals in the calm session reading was 7 consecutive beats, and while exercising there was no variance in more that 5 beats. So if I gave each interval a value of “1” if it was in a group of of 10 ore more intervals with low variance and a value of “0” if it was not in such a group, the graphs of the calm and exercising sessions would be as seen below. No intervals are in a group of 10 low variance readings in the calme state, all intervals in are a group of 10 or more for exercising.

Slide6

The second half of the calculation is the definition of “low variance.” I proposed in my post on HRV and Stress Free State that 25 milliseconds was low. So I took the rule set that the I was in berserk status when 10 consecutive intervals were under 25 ms and graphed if for a meeting I participated in last week. That graph shows more of the meeting in high vibration than I remember and didn’t quite look right to me. I lowered the number to 15 milliseconds and the amount of unrestrained Sympathetic activity seemed to get too small. Not a very rigorous sensitivity analysis I realize, but I have to pick a start point that seems to somewhat resemble what I remember happening.

Slide7

 

I set the calculation for 17 seconds and the graph started to look like general stress cadence of the meeting as I remembered it. Fortunately, I had audio recorded the meeting!  So I went back and listened to those portions where it looked like my Parasympathetic Nervous System had stepped aside.

Slide8

 

In those three portions of the recording I could hear in my voice that I was in a state of high vibration. In the first case I was presenting something and I sounded unsure of myself. In the second I sounded confident, but my cadence was noticeably slower and it sounded like I was searching for words at times. In the final case I actually said “I don’t understand your question” and there was a bit of confusion.

So I have a base that I am now going to start running data through to see if I can validate the 10 consecutive beat, 17 millisecond ruleset. If it starts identifying points of stress with precision I will have a framework that can help me start creating preparation regimes for 1:1 interactions based on precise knowledge of stressor that flatline my Parasympathetic Nervous System.

 

Dual-3-Back & HRV Update

I have continued the experiment I reported earlier on playing Dual-n-back game while monitoring my progression Heart Rate Variability (HRV). I have manually set the game to Dual-3-back, meaning I have to remember a location and letter that is three iterations in the past. For a full explanation of how much cognitive load that adds to the situation you can read Gwern’s FAQ on Dual-n-back here. I can tell you from experience that 3 back is a lot harder than 2 back. The data shows the difference in scores:

Slide1

 

You can see I was reliably getting percent scores in the 70’s and 80’s playing 2 back. When I increased the difficulty to 3 back my scores dropped to the 30’s. An you can see a progression where the most recent plays are moving toward 50%. How has this effected my HRV? Here is my rMSSD for the last 8 sessions of 2 back and first 19 sessions of 3 back.

Slide2

 

As I have reported before an rMSSD above 48 for a 30 second reading occurs when I am relaxed and feeling stress free. Each of these games are 4.5 minutes long, so that is 9 consecutive 30 second readings. You can see the 2 back games toward the end were averaging above 50 so I was feeling stress free during those sessions which makes sense because I my average score for those sessions was 77%. I had the feeling of having mastered that level.

When I started with 3 back  the rMSSD dropped to an average of 43.3 for the first ten sessions. 3 back was definitely harder and I was seeing very slow progression in the scores. I recall feeling a bit negative about the process and unsure if I could get better at the task. I did not really try any strategies, I just tried to improve through repetition.

The last four 3 back sessions are interesting. At session fifteen I was thinking about how to move the score I decided to try focussing on only the location and “wing it” for remembering the audio cue. To my surprise BOTH measures went up. I saw better results and got interested about pushing this strategy. For the following sessions you can see both my scores and my rMSSD going up. My rMSSD average for those sessions is 54.25. I was enjoying the process because I saw there was a path to improvement.

What is intriguing is that my rMSSD (and stress) changed not as a result of the scores, but at the specific point I felt I had discovered a way to improve the process. My perception alone drove the change in HRV. My story about improvement and efficacy moved my stress level, not the performance of the game at all. So growth and learning is gradual, but our story about how the progression of the learning can be more dramatic.

HRV, Simple Games & Imagination

After feedback from Bob and Gwern on the learning post I have started collecting heart rate variability (HRV) while playing Dual-N-Back game that Gwern recommended. Dual-N-Back is much more intense than the simple category recognition game I have been measuring. I will share the results there when I gave a good amount of data. Out of curiousity I kept playing the simple game from the first post and continued recording the results.

What I have seen with continued plays of that first simple game has surprised me. According to the principles in Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow I would expect a stress response from my HRV reading in the beginning, a relaxed (high) HRV when I was in Flow then for the reading to taper off as I become bored with the task. I’m not finding that. Here is the graph:

Slide1

What has happened is after the first sessions of learning how to use the category game (session 1 through 6) my HRV became relaxed and has stayed there. In fact the “up-down-up-down” you see on the graph is an expression of the fact I do two or three sessions a day and sometimes I get into a groove in different sessions. The graph if you average the sessions across the day eliminates this and is clearer on how stable my HRV has been once I familiarized myself with the game:

Slide2

So this particular category game engages my attention enough to get me into a relaxed state that yields consistently higher HRV. I am a bit thoughtful during the task and at times my mind wanders because I am bored. And the numbers show that I am averaging a much higher HRV overall after having become familiar with the task.

What I see in the different session scores is a state of attention playing out. When I am engaged and focus my HRV as reflected in the points scores is higher. Each time I play I use the same tablet at the same desk in the same sound and light environment. The task is the same, and I usually score the same amount of points. What is different is whether I have a story in my head that I should be doing something else or have been doing the task for too long. That story is completely from my imagination. So imagination drives HRV as much as anything.

Heart Rate Variability, Learning & Flow

I looked at how my Heart Rate Variability (HRV) changed through the process of learning a simple task from introduction of the activity through to a point where the task was nearly pre-conscious and automatic. I compared the change in HRV to Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of moving from anxiety through Flow to boredom.

What I did:

  • played an Android based “brain game” twice through for approximately 4.5 minutes per session for twelve sessions,
  • measured the total heart rate coherence accumulated points score as given by Heartmath Pro over the total session,
  • divided the total accumulated points per session by the number of minutes to derive a “points per minute” score per session,
  • after entering that data into excel graphed the resulting points per session over the learning cycle.

How I did it:

In each session I would start Heartmath Pro and wait until 30 seconds had elapsed so I was getting an HRV based cardiac coherence reading. As soon as software started getting this reading started I would begin to play “Mind Games” on a Nexus 7 tablet. The game I played was 120 seconds long and included choosing one of four categories appropriate for a shown picture. The choices were cards, dice, cars or people and this example screenshot shows an image for a car with the four buttons below:

Screenshot_2014-10-09-10-15-10

 

I played two repetitions of the 120 second game per HRV reading session for an approximate total session length of 4.5 minutes and two sessions a day for six days.

Heartmath Pro awards points per five second interval based on a “coherence score.” The score is based on the ratio of Low Frequency cardiac output to High Frequency, where cardiac coherence is considered to be achieved when all frequencies group in the Low Frequency band around .1Hz. Every five seconds the software awards achievement points based on the coherence score, meaning if your coherence score was 3.5 for that five seconds the software adds 3.5 points to your points total. The final outcome of a session looks like the this:

Slide1

This scoring is a proxy for how variable your heart rate was during a session and thus how relaxed your physiology was in the period. Comparing the points total per minute to other measures like LF/HF and rMSSD show that higher points per minute and more “stress free” LF/HF and rMSSD correlate.

Once the sessions were completed I entered the session length and score in an excel spreadsheet which then calculated the points/minute for that session. In the session shown above 138 achievement points divided by 4.52 minutes gave an outcome of 40.9 points/minute. Scores playing the game over the twelve sessions ranged from 21.0 to 52.3 points/minute.

What I learned:

My initial idea was to avoid creating stress with the mind game by not paying attention to the mind game score, which was a measure of correctly categorized images. I was trying to only engage my attention and take a reading of HRV. I wanted to compare my HRV during engaged attention to a baseline where I let my mind wander and to when I was working on a computer. It was in session seven where I entered a very relaxed state and both the points/session and the mind game scores were going noticeably upward that I started looking at this learning curve in isolation.

In that seventh session I entered a relaxed state and no longer had to think about the answer as the image flashed on the screen. My fingers just moved. By sessions eight through eleven I was watching my fingers move without really thinking at all. And time, while it did not disappear, was no longer in my attention. I thought I may have entered a state described by Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow theory where  challenge and skills balance, as shown in this graph:

Flow Channel Image

When undertaking a task and the challenges match the skills and feedback is immediate one enters a relaxed and enjoyable state where time seems to disappear and the action just emerges. In the seventh and eighth sessions I realized this might be happening. Here is how that change in state was reflected in my HRV readings:

Slide1

As higher HRV is associated with a relaxed state, what we see here is my physiological reaction to a challenge of a uniform difficulty was becoming more relaxed with repetition.

My subjective experience in sessions one through five was that of feeling “alert in the head” meaning I was calculating the answers as the images came up. And I was keenly aware of the time during each session and recall saying “only 20 seconds to go” or “only one more session.” This was a state of low level stress and anxiety.

Session six still felt like that but the HRV points/minute score was starting upward. By session seven the subjective experience started to change. I was relaxed during those sessions and time, while not completely gone, seemed to fade. My HRV points/minute continued upward. During session eleven and twelve the scores seemed to drop. I was doing the brain game automatically and not feeling stress of doing the game but my mind was starting to wander to other topics. Boredom had begun.

Using the Flow chart this is what I think the HRV chart shows:

Slide2

In the first five sessions my HRV reading was an average of 25 points/minute. As subjectively I began entering the Flow state from session six through ten my average HRV reading was 43 points/minute. During session 11 and 12 as my mind started to wander a bit the average on those sessions was 35 points per minute. Not stress, but not as relaxed and engaged.

Issues and Next Steps:

The issue here is I am writing this up before gathering sufficient data to see the full curve. For example, if I keep playing the game to absolute stultifying boredom where does the HRV points/minute level out? And how do I add challenge that is compatible with the “learned skill” of choosing the four categories?

The next steps are to see if HRV can be an indicator of location on the Flow continuum with respect to a learning task. If so, the challenge inherent in that task can be adjusted if the HRV readings indicatate that the learner is either 1) not emerging from early stages of learning anxiety or 2) the learner is dropping into a state of boredom because the task is mastered.