As a kid, there was a cluster of trees and shrubs in the backyard where I sat when the chaos inside the house was too much. There was also a piece of wood that we nailed on the pine tree out front we called the “tree fort.” I loved to climb that tree and sit there on the slab of wood. My whole body felt safe and relaxed.
Moments in Nature
Those moments in trees stuck with me (unlike many moments in the classroom which are a murky). The moments in nature used all my senses and my brain was clear and relaxed to absorb the experience.
When the brain and emotions are not stressed, the hippocampus stops its fight or flight response and is able to do its job of helping long term memory consolidation. The other regions of the brain work better too.
HeartMath Institute and Brain Coherence
The HeartMath Institute has been studying heart intelligence and heart coherence since 1991 using sophisticated and varied technologies. Based on a measurement known as heart rate variability, (HRV), they determined when a person in a state of “heart coherence” or “heart incoherence.”(link here) There was a coherent HRV pattern with a state of heart coherence.
They could measure the HRV and determine that heart coherence happened in a positive emotional state such as gratitude and appreciation, while heart incoherence happened in a negative emotional state such as worry and frustration.
If you think back to those times where you have felt peace and calm, the emotions accompanying those experiences were positive. Perhaps you’ve felt the opposite too—a sense of chaos and anxiety accompanied by negative emotions such as frustration and worry.
Stress and the Affect on Memory
I can remember going to teach a class after an extremely stressful situation in my personal life. The brain was firing so many alarm signals, my short term memory was failing me. In fact, for two weeks after this situation, I had to write down my whole class outline in five-minute increments. My short term memory virtually disappeared. When I got an MRI, everything looked normal. “Hormones” was all they said. But it was the severe stress which was affecting the hormones and the memory.
I was able to improve my memory after dealing with the emotional stressors, but also by short circuiting the stress response with physical exercise. I did cross lateral movement such as cross-crawl and walking with my arms swinging in opposite directions from my legs. In my experience, this helped calm down the fight or flight response by helping communication between the left and right centers of the brain. Meditation and qigong breathing helped too. And with the passage of time, my memory came back.
HeartMath determined that the brain functions better when the heart is in a coherent state. I’ve experienced this as a teacher in the classroom. When students are happy, interested, curious, the class flows, students have the courage to experiment and make mistakes. Conversely, when students are worried, stressed, they can do poorly on tests, experiment less, and take fewer creative risks.
Move the Body and Shift the Brain
I found it was difficult for me to “talk myself out of stress.” I had to feel differently or do something physically to change the stress.
According to research by HeartMath Institute, there is more communication from the heart to the brain than from the brain to the heart. This explained why I couldn’t talk myself out of stress too. This communication from the heart to the brain is via four pathways: hormones, the nervous system, electromagnetically, and “pulse waves.”
I had to start with my heart and body to change my brain’s stress response. I noticed this in my classroom, too. It was difficult to talk my students out of anxiety in the classroom. I had more success when I could move them into a positive emotional state through creating safety nets, building trust, or even bypassing the negative emotions with physical exercise.
We need to bring back this harmony or “heart coherence” into the classroom. I have done this in my own life with the many tools I discuss in my book including a mindfulness activity known as “focusing,” cross-lateral movement, breathing and activities which connect us to each other. Otherwise, students cannot learn as well and I can not be as creative or communicative.
Nature is also a great conduit for “heart coherence” in my own experience. So when all else fails, go for a walk among the trees. It will do wonders.