Heart rate variability indices as bio-markers of top-down self-regulatory mechanisms: A meta-analytic review

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Theoretical perspectives posit that heart-rate variability (HRV) reflects self-regulatory capacity and therefore can be employed as a bio-marker of top-down self-regulation (the ability to regulate behavioral, cognitive, and emotional processes). However, existing findings of relations between self-regulation and HRV indices are mixed. To clarify the nature of such relations, we conducted a meta-analysis of 123 studies (N = 14,347) reporting relations between HRV indices and aspects of top-down self-regulation (e.g., executive functioning, emotion regulation, effortful control). A significant, albeit small, effect was observed (r = 0.09) such that greater HRV was related to better top-down self-regulation. Differences in relations were negligible across aspects of self-regulation, self-regulation measurement methods, HRV computational techniques, at-risk compared with healthy samples, and the context of HRV measurement. Stronger relations were observed in older relative to younger samples and in published compared to unpublished studies. These findings generally support the notion that HRV indices can tentatively be employed as bio-markers of top-down self-regulation. Conceptual and theoretical implications, and critical gaps in current knowledge to be addressed by future work, are discussed.

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