Weight, blood pressure, distance; those are all easy to measure. How about your concentration or your ability to relax? HearthMath’s $229 emWave2 is a portable gadget that measures your pulse (using a sensor you put your thumb on, or an ear clip). It uses that to calculate the variability of your heart rate (if your heart beats 80 times in a minute that doesn’t mean the beats are spaced evenly apart) and tries to coach you to make this more coherent through deep breathing and positive visualizations, by displaying blue lights for you to synchronize your breathing with and a red, yellow or green light to score your ‘coherence’.
The documentation is an odd mix of scientific terminology – explaining that the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems govern heart rate, that the heart has 40,000 neurons and secretes hormones that affect the rest of the body and that stress can make the variability of your heart rate far worse than it should be for your age – and ‘new age’ concepts like centering and ‘emotional refocusing’ that just won’t make sense to people. (Although deep breathing will help you relax, HeartMath’s system also involves evoking positive emotions: ‘coherence’ is supposed to be a calm but energized start rather than the deep relaxation of meditation and the breathing speed is faster than most meditation techniques).
Even following the manual, trying to use the unit on its own is confusing and it’s pretty expensive for a breathing pacer. One of our testers found their ear lobes were too thick to get a pulse reading from, but the thumb sensor worked for everyone. Where it really comes into its own is when you plug it into a PC and run the software. Not only does this give you a clear chart on screen rather than cryptic lights; it also comes with a set of games and exercises – like trying to get a grey and dusty garden to spring into colorful life - that are more interesting and effective than staring at the lights. Plus you can keep track of how well you score over time, which may be better than relying on your memory to see if you really are changing any habits.
The value you get out of the emWave2 varies with both the time you put into it and how effective you find the techniques. Some of our testers felt calmer, less stressed and more able to deal with uncomfortable tasks fairly quickly after using it, others didn’t notice enough of a difference to want to persist.