The Heart: Earthly and Emotive

October 1, 2014 | Posted in: Psychology

Der Vivisektor (The Vivisector), Gabriel von Max, 1883. This painting was a rebuke against the common practice of animal vivisection at the time, showing Lady Justice holding a scale with a brain (to represent research) and the heart (to represent ethics). The heart we can see outweighs the brain.

Der Vivisektor, Gabriel von Max, 1883. This painting was a rebuke against the then common practice of animal vivisection, showing Lady Justice holding a scale before a vivisector, with a brain (to represent research) outweighed by the heart (to represent ethics).

“[W]e rarely hear the internal workings of our body, the caustic churning of our stomach, the whooshing of our blood, the flexing of our joints, our eyelids’ relentless opening and closing. At most, if we’re wearing earplugs, or have one ear pressed against a pillow at night, we might hear our heartbeat. But for a baby in the womb the mother’s heartbeat performs the ultimate cradlesong of peace and plenty… Our own heartbeat reassures us that we are well. We dread its one day stopping, we dread the heart-silence of those we love.”
Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses


There are somatic sensations, beyond the constant drum beat, that our hearts experience: aching, fluttering, swelling or tightening, warming or chilling. We literally feel our hearts, how they react to what we love or fear or lose. And this is where the separate lines representing the physical heart (the hollow muscle expanding and collapsing in our chests) and the metaphorical heart (the emotional and spiritual associations) begin to waver and weave, one into the other.

In my previous post, we got into the bloody business of early heart transplants, the miraculous way that a healthy heart can be moved from one chest to another, re-inflating to beat once more in a brand new rib cage. As this heart-changing operation has grown more successful (with recipients of new hearts living years rather than days), a growing number of recovered patients are sharing their experiences of bizarre personality changes:

“Heart transplants, we are told over and over, often feel the presence of their donor. A woman formerly terrified of water had a great desire to go swimming and sailing after her transplant: her donor was a sailor who had died in a boating accident. A born-again Christian woke up swearing and cursing after receiving the heart of a biker… Another suddenly took to bananas and puddings, and reproached his donor for ruining his dance rhythms and undermining his skill at horseshoes.” Louisa Young, The Book of the Heart

Imagine you receive a new heart. What would you feel when awakening from the surgery, chest sewn back up, and an alien heart suddenly pumping within you? More than any other organ transplant, the heart frequently causes questions and discomfort in the recipient: Where did this heart come from? Who was the individual that grew this organ? What people did this heart beat faster for, warm for, chill for? Has it experienced love, hate, fear, angst, joy? Is its tempo different from the heart that was grown in me? Some recipients say they notice no changes, no feelings of strangeness at all. And perhaps this would be best, would be easiest, to go on as if no change of heart had occurred.

But many recipients do notice newness, strangeness, altered behavior, and while some scientists discredit these stories as resulting from the fanciful ways we culturally think of our hearts, others have sought to explain the phenomenon through the idea of cellular memory, meaning that cells themselves store and share memories. The theory of cellular memory, new and certainly rife with controversy and questions, posits that cells learn, adapt, and store their experiences, exchanging this information with the rest of the body in an endless chemical cascade of communications, from the tips of our digits to the innermost reaches of our heart and brain, lungs and stomach. How much cells are able to remember or share may be in question, but that the body is involved in consciousness is not:

“We know that consciousness is not all in the mind: brain and body communicate through short chains of amino acids–neuropeptides and receptors. Human emotions are triggered by neuropeptides attaching themselves to receptors, which stimulates an electrical change in neurons. Peptides–‘bits of brain’–exist throughout the body, including in the heart and stomach, and communicate not only with the brain (including the thalamus and the pituitary gland) but with the immune system, the hypothalamus and the pineal gland, which between them cover most bases of memory, emotions, learning and energy levels. Neurotransmitters found in the brain have also been found in the heart, suggesting communication between the two beyond the neurological connections already identified.” Young

Planche d’enseignement, Delagrave Librairie, 19th century.

Planche d’enseignement, Delagrave Librairie, 19th century.

The brain is no longer believed to be the sole commander of a mindless body. Rather, many other parts of our bodies are now being recognized as contributors to consciousness. New research is illuminating that the heart may not simply be receiving commands from the brain, but also sending chemical requests for updates and altering its actions based on received information (Young). There are mysterious workings going on within the blood-filling-and-emptying chambers of our hearts which we are just barely beginning to glimpse.

And while I’ve focused on human hearts in this series of posts, hearts are found in abundance in the greater web of life:

“Mammals and birds have hearts with four chambers. Reptiles and turtles have hearts with three chambers. Fish have hearts with two chambers. Insects and mollusks have hearts with one chamber. Worms have hearts with one chamber, although they may have as many as eleven one-chambered hearts. Insects have hearts that pump their version of blood, hemolymph, over and through all the organs in their remarkable bodies… Unicellular bacteria have no hearts at all; but even they have fluid eternally in motion, washing from one side of the cell to the other, swirling and whirling. No living being is without interior liquid motion. We all churn inside.” Brian Doyle, The Wet Engine

The heart conducts the tidal flow of blood through the whole of our body, brain to groin, toes to nose, ever in flux and flow, just like the salty seas our most ancient ancestors evolved in. The human brain is a very new organ, a recent star on the evolutionary stage, while the heart appeared more than half a billion years ago to act as the engine for a whole host of evolving organisms, who required this powerful pumping action to distribute oxygen and nutrients throughout their bodies. The heart is like the sun of our body, spreading the heat and nourishment of blood, an ancient organ passed down from generation to generation in a miscellany of organisms. Our talented brains may seem to separate us from our fellow earthly beings, but our hearts speak of irrefutable connection.

Through the centuries of human history, the heart has been asked to hold all polarities within it: blood and spirit, good and evil, love and hate. It is both flesh and metaphor, sneered at, exalted, ignored, and dissected. We try to understand it using the mind, and it begs the question: What is the mind? Where does the self arise, where is consciousness housed within the body? Is the heart truly the home of love or the idol of the irrational? Saint Makario in the 5th century, wrote of the human heart’s complex associations during his time:

“Within the heart are unfathomable depths. There are reception rooms and bedchambers in it, doors and porches, and many offices and passages. In it is the workshop of righteousness and wickedness… The heart is but a small vessel, and yet dragons and lions are there, and there are poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. And there likewise is God, there are the angels, there life and the Kingdom, there light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of graces: all things are there.” Excerpt from The Book of the Heart, Louisa Young

Mirror of the Sinful, Jacques Chiquet, c. 1700s.

Mirror of the Sinful, Jacques Chiquet, c. 1700s.

Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum your heart goes right now, and 100,000 times a day, a drum that only rarely falters, until inevitably, one day, it stops. Till then, the heart beats away in our chests, seems to sing, expand, warm with love or shrink, harden, close with fear. We can believe our consciousness arises from our heart (as many indigenous peoples do) or that the heart is only an organ, but when we viscerally feel our heart, the sensations of its rhythm, its warmth, its endless expanding waves of energy, we are in touch with that ever mysterious heart, the one with reasons that reason cannot know.

“Forget the name of the Heart. Forget any and all images of the Heart, perceptions, conceptions, traditions, instructions. Cease to try to understand. Just listen. Just feel it humming hammering holy.” Doyle

 The following books informed this post:
The Wet Engine, Brian Doyle
The Book of the Heart, Louisa Young
A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman

Just one person out of 7 billion + on a journey to live a life that is vibrant, soul-fulfilling, useful to others, and consciously engaged with the ecological community that sustains all life, including mine and yours.