Improving Willpower thru Heart Rate Variability


On August 17th, 1998 I was watching Bill Clinton’s grand jury testimony on TV.

August was my first month in the US and I had plenty to learn.

I came from Former Soviet Union. Someone has said there was no sex in Soviet Union. As many knew, there was no democracy either.

So seeing an uncomfortable US president, the most powerful man in the world, questioned about oral sex was an interesting introduction into American democracy. And into American sex customs as well.

It was both surreal and sad. Smart and self-made, Clinton had a lot of accomplishments to be remembered for. Longest economic expansion in the American history, lowest unemployment, more than 22 million jobs created, the list was long.

Instead, his presidency would be defined by the sex scandal. Besides a great lesson about American politics, this experience was also a teachable moment in self-control failure. Could Clinton have done anything to prevent it?

Two minds

Our self-control is a result of evolution. Because social cooperation ensures survival, humans evolved to get along with each other. We learned how to suppress our impulses. Impulse suppression became a primary function of self-control (for more about evolution and willpower read this book).

As a result of this evolutionary development, we have two minds. One strives for immediate gratification. The other controls our impulses and is capable of long-term planning (The image below is from Willpower Instinct). The impulses reside in an ancient part of the brain, while self-control is located in the prefrontal cortex (more recent, evolutionarily-speaking, part of the brain).

We alternate between the two minds. Whenever there’s a conflict, one mind needs to overwrite the other. This is when we use (or don’t use as in Clinton’s example) the willpower.

The pause-and-plan response

What happens in our bodies when we exercise self-control? The brain launches a sequence of events called pause-and-plan response. It starts with a detection of conflict (and possible future regret) in our brain. The prefrontal cortex gets activated to help us to make a right choice. Since the brain needs energy, the body redirects energy to the brain. As Roy F. Baumeister shows in his book, exercising willpower depletes us of glucose.

The plan-and-pause response is the direct opposite of fight-or-flight reaction. Instead of speeding up, our body slows down. Breathing gets slower, and the body relaxes. The goal is to put the body in a calm mode, so that we will have equanimity and mental clarity for a thoughtful action.

The heart rate goes down, and the heart variability goes up. Interestingly, the heart rate variability is a very good indicator of self-control.

When we breathe, our heart rate changes depending on inhale/exhale. It speeds up when we inhale and slows down when we exhale. Under stress, our sympathetic nervous system takes over. That’s why our heart rate goes up, and its variability goes down. With an elevated heart rate, we feel anxious and angry.

When the prefrontal cortex launches the plan-and-pause response, the parasympathetic nervous system steps in to calm us down. The heart rate goes down but the variability goes up. Graphically, the heart rate variability under two responses looks something like this (note the higher heart variability in the second chart):

In fact, heart rate variability is so good at predicting future choices, we can use it to predict human behavior. For example, if a recovering alcoholic’s heart variability goes up when he sees an alcoholic drink, he is more likely to stay sober. In general, people with higher heart rate variability are better at concentrating, persisting at difficult tasks, delaying gratification, and dealing with stress.

Because the heart rate variability (HRV) is so paramount to decision making, there is an entire industry of books and gadgets aimed at increasing/changing heart rate variability. (I haven’t used them myself, so I can’t to comment on their effectiveness. Let me know if you have used and benefited from them.)

Various factors impact HRV, from food, to stress, to breathing, to sleep. Processed food and stress deplete the willpower, while meditation and sleep restores it. Anything that reduces stress or improves health increases HRV (i.e. exercise, sleep, time with friends and family, etc)

This bring us back to the first question:

How can I improve my self-control?

A quick way to increase self-control is to increase HRV. Breathing rate can be used to increase HRV. Studies have shown HRV starts increasing as the breathing rate drops below 12 breaths per minute. For best results, you have to slow down breathing to 4 to 6 breaths per minute. That’s 10 to 15 seconds per breath. (for more details read Willpower Instinct, pg 42-45)

Meditation techniques I used also start with slowing down breathing. It does relax me, and I suspect it makes meditation easier to endure. Sitting to meditate is an exercise in self-control after all. This probably sets off an entire loop: meditation -> to increase self-control, more self-control -> easier to meditate.

My Fitbit also shows my heart rate dropping every time I slow down my breathing. Alas, Fitbit does not track heart rate variability so I can’t say anything about my HRV.

This technique has been successfully used across many stressful occupations (police/firefighters/stock traders). It has been shown to help with stress and depression.

Perhaps even Clinton could have benefited from it…

  1. Willpower Instinct
  2. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength
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