Our Silent Heart-to-Hearts

When Naomi backed in through their apartment door, arms loaded with her handbag, gym bag, and the box of dinner ingredients from Fresh Hello, Arturo was waiting for her, suavely dressed in his Armani shirt, arms outstretched, grinning, folding her into his embrace.

“Hello, my love!” he cooed.  “Tonight we celebrate.”  He set her bags and the box on the counter, raised her hand, and lightly spun her.  She shuffled around, saying, “Celebrate?”

“Rollerblade down to the waterfront. Maddie and Jimbo want to sail us out around the Statue of Liberty and back.  Barbecue on the back of their boat in the twilight.  We’re going to celebrate this baby coming and the raise I got and spending a chunk of it on remodeling our closet into a nursery.”

“Okay,” she said, wondering what else he had in mind.  “I guess this box dinner can wait till tomorrow night.”

“Okay?” he said, looking deep into her eyes.  “What does that mean?”

She turned away to peel off her jacket and hang it on the hook behind the door.  “Okay means let’s do it,” she said in a voice that didn’t convince him.

“Whoa,” he said. “It’s time for a heart-to-heart.” He pulled out his phone and tapped his Social Coherence app.

On this day in 2025 this will be the second time Naomi has heard that call for a social coherence check.  Earlier that day she will have heard it from her boss, Ruth Havens, head acquisitions editor.  During their weekly review conference the usuals had been present around the small table in the conference room: Jill and Abdul, the two other assistant editors, Tim from marketing, Alfie from finance, and Hema the intern.  Ruth was pushing for closure on whether to go ahead with investing in a series of young adult books by an unknown author on the tricky topic of gaming as a teaching technique for high schoolers.  After going around the table and getting an apparent unanimous consent to offer the contract, an uneasy pause settled on the room.  Ruth shuffled some papers, looked again at her team, and announced, “This doesn’t feel like unanimous consent.  Social coherence check. All got your wrist bands on?” She pulled out her phone and tapped the app. The others around the table reluctantly tapped in as well.

In five or ten years could social coherence monitoring be as routine an event for the device-devoted as texting is today?  So far, there’s no app for it.  Social coherence is a concept, but too complex to have made it to the popular market.  Still, I find the possibility mesmerizing—that the physiologies of two people (or seven!) could synchronize—not just their thoughts, but their heart beats, their breathing rates, their hormones.  Why not?  Herd animals and flocks of birds must synchronize in these ways.  Mothers and infants sometimes can synch their breathing and voices and even their heart rates.  Why not two adults, or many?  We can synchronize our steps when we march and our voices when we sing.  How deep does this synchrony go?

I picture a graphic on their phones that reveals how well or poorly synchronized their hearts are.  Maybe two lines, or seven, showing each of the rhythms of the variations in heart beats and some overlay that measures the degree of coherence or incoherence.  Instant feedback.  Well-trained participants could then use their skills to try to get their physiologies in sync with the other(s).  Think of it as group biofeedback.

The term “social coherence” has emerged in the psychophysiology lingo recently.  It rests on the concept of coherence within a physiologic system, such as the cardiovascular system.   Physiologic coherence begins with the observation that a rhythmic process in our bodies, such as breathing or heart rate, can oscillate in a range of patterns, some of which have high degrees of order, stability, and efficiency.  Your car engine, which also operates in rhythmic cycles of cylinders firing, can run in a range of patterns, including an optimal idle speed and an optimal cruising speed around 55 mph.  Coherence in these oscillating systems refers to optimal patterns of efficiency.

We recognize these efficient physiologic patterns partly through feelings of pleasure.  We find a steady resting heart beat around 60 more comfortable than heart beats as low as 30 or as high as 110 beats per minute.  Evolution has made us so we enjoy these more efficient states.  And we know the opposite, chaotic physiologic states, as the absence of pleasure, or as discomfort or pain.  This lack of physiologic coherence can be as distressing as incoherence in speech or thought.  We recognize when a person’s speech crosses a certain line between order or sense and disorder or nonsense.  Alarm bells go off in all of us.  Are we less good at recognizing physiologic incoherence?

There is a published definition of cardiac coherence, based on the physiologic measure of heart rate variability.  This concept of heart rate variability refers to the fact that resilient hearts vary their rates widely in response to challenges; aged or diseased hearts are less flexible and can vary their heart rates much less. In a recent review the authors of this definition found that cardiac coherence may be related to other measures of health, such as the ability to regulate strong emotions, maintain stability of the autonomic nervous system, and control blood pressure.

Cardiac coherence is an attractive possibility, but neither the concept nor this specific definition has spread much beyond the circle of the authors in the nine years since it was first published, so it’s not yet clear how useful this definition of cardiac coherence may be.  If you google “cardiac coherence,” the only published scientific article in the first three pages of listings is the 2014 article cited above.  One of the more promising of these listings is the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s page for the Center for Integrative Medicine offering “cardiac coherence training.”

There is also a self-report measure of the effectiveness of coping with stress, called the Sense of Coherence, by Aaron Antonovsky, which may be loosely related to the concept of physiologic coherence, though no one seems to have studied that link.  A paper published this year found that this Sense of Coherence measure explained a substantial amount of the risk for developing diabetes in a group of people with chronic stress.  Maybe a person’s low sense of coherence reflects an “incoherent” or disordered physiologic state that paves the way to chronic illness.

There are lots of gaps that need to be filled in this potential story.  If this is more than the coincidental use of the same word by two silos in the psychophysiology world, it’s possible that our sense of effective coping includes sensing cardiac coherence as well as other forms of physiologic coherence.   Steven Porges, in his book The Polyvagal Theory (2011), makes clear the evolutionary origins of the links among emotions, social attachments, and heart rate variability in animals and humans, all of which are essential to adaptation and health.  And there’s good science suggesting that in humans mother-infant synchrony of several types, including heart rate variability, during the first three months of life predicts later capacities for self-regulation of emotions among toddlers, attachment security at 6 years old, and empathy in adolescence [link to ref].  This is evidence for social rhythms entraining biological rhythms that later pave the way to more complex social rhythms, such as the sometimes surprising capacity of teenagers to experience empathy for others.

So is it possible that we can not only sense coherence within our own physiologies but in the physiologies of others, first our mothers and later our lovers or colleagues? Can I intuitively adjust my heart to sync with yours? So far the evidence is not persuasive.  Many gaps need to be filled before we can confidently say so. Maybe with better group biofeedback we can learn this fine art.  What kinds of synchrony might we be experiencing without knowing it when we dance, sing, or have an intimate heart-to-heart talk.  How many levels of conversation are we conducting?  I can sense your breathing.  Can I sense your heart beats too?  If our hearts are in sync, do our words matter?

Smart scientists have a lot more work to do on the devices and the data analysis and the apps that can translate all that data from our wrist bands into a few simple graphs that will guide us to adjust our behavior and our heart beats for finer harmony among us.  Until then, to find some kind of social coherence, we’ll have to rely on our intuitions and looking deep into other people’s eyes and listening to how they say their words and guessing if we’re in sync.

Then some day there’ll be an app for that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *