The Heart — An Organ of Truth and Emotion

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heart and brain

Sayings like “I love you with all my heart,” and “my heart swelled with joy,” or the reference to someone being “broken-hearted” or “cold hearted”, are these kinds of poetic sayings references to something that is biologically true and real?  Is the way we see our heart a reflection of how we view ourselves as human beings?

The ancient Egyptians saw the heart as an organ of truth. And indeed, our heart does seem to be able to tell the truth about how we feel and what we think is right or wrong. For example, when we lie our heart rate tends to speed up.

Leonardo Da Vinci discovered how the blood flowed through the heart, and how the swirling vortexes within the heart’s chambers worked with the heart, opening and closing the valves with each heart beat, disproving the view of the heart as a simple single-stroke pump. Da Vinci’s drawings and experiments reveal a harmonic beauty, as much a piece of art as a machine.

David Paterson, Ph.D. a professor at Oxford University, straddles the two areas of the brain and the heart. His work shows that our brain is not the sole source of our emotions, but the fact that our heart and brain work together in producing emotions.  Our heart actually contains neurons, similar to those in our brain, and our heart and brain are closely connected, creating a symbiotic emotional whole. In the film, ‘Our Hearts and Mind’, by documentay filmmaker David Malone, he explains;

“When your heart receives signals from the brain via the sympathetic nerves, it pumps faster. And when it receives signals through the parasympathetic nerves, it slows down. “

While this seems to support the view that the heart simply follows the orders of the brain, the reality is far more complex. Neurons are what allow our brain to form thoughts, but our heart also contains thousands of specialized neurons, predominantly located around the right ventricle surface, forming a complex network.  While much about the neurons in our heart is still unknown, the fact remains that the “brain” in our heart communicates back and forth with the brain in our head. It’s a two-way street. As David Malone says:

“The heart is a pump that does respond when the brain asks it to, but it is not enslaved to the brain. Its relationship to the brain is more like a marriage … with each dependent on the other. It seems science is now restoring to the heart something that rightfully belongs to it: Our emotions.”

The interplay between our brain and heart can be seen when looking at how our emotional and mental outlook affects our health, especially our heart health. For example, intense anger increases the risk of a  heart attack five-fold, and the risk for a stroke three-fold.

Intense grief after the loss of a loved one also raises the risk of having a heart attack. The day immediately following a loss, the risk of a heart attack goes up by 21 times, and remains six times higher than normal for several weeks. 1 An example of this is what happened when Carrie Fisher passed away.  Her mother, Debbie Reynolds, so stricken with grief, had a stroke the following day, and passed away. Though it was a movie, in the film ‘Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith’, the heroine, Amidala, passes away after given birth to her twins from a ‘broken’ heart, caused by the intense anger of her husband.

Research also shows that people exposed to traumatic experiences have higher rates of cardiac problems than the general population. Examples of this are combat veterans, New Orleans residents who went through Hurricane Katrina, and the Greeks who are struggling through financial turmoil.

In one such study, 2 which involved nearly 208,000 veterans aged 46 to 74, 35 percent of those diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) developed insulin resistance in two years, compared to only 19 percent of those not diagnosed with PTSD.

PTSD sufferers also had higher rates of metabolic syndrome, a collection of risk factors that raise your risk of heart disease, such as high body fat, cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels. More than half of veterans, approx. 53percent with PTSD, had several of these symptoms, compared to 37 percent of those not suffering with PTSD.

If negative emotions have the potential to harm your heart, it would stand to reason that positive emotions may heal it, and this indeed seems to be the case. In a study 3 of nearly 1,500 people with an increased risk of early-onset coronary artery disease, those who reported being cheerful, relaxed, satisfied with life, and full of energy had a one-third reduction in coronary events such as a heart attack.

Those with the highest risk of coronary events enjoyed an even greater risk reduction of nearly 50 percent. This was true even when other heart disease risk factors, such as smoking, age, and diabetes, were taken into account. Separate research has similarly found that:

  • Positive psychological well-being is associated with a consistent reduced risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) 4
  • Emotional vitality may protect against risk of CHD in men and women 5
  • Cheerful heart disease patients live longer than pessimistic heart patients 6
  • Very optimistic people have lower risks of dying from any cause, as well as lower risks of dying from heart disease, compared to highly pessimistic people 7

In one test performed by David Malone, a series of images of neutral and frightened faces, where shown to him, some synced in time to his heartbeat, and others not synced to his heart. Interestingly, when the frightened faces were shown in sync with his heartbeat, he perceived them as being more intensely frightened than when shown out of sync with his heartbeat. What this test showed was that how his mind processed the perception of fear was affected by his heart. When his brain processed the image in sync with his heart, there was a greater “resonance” in the emotional output.

By looking at the brain scans taken during the test, the researchers are able to pinpoint the precise brain region affected by the heart, namely the amygdala, an area known to be associated with threat perception. The amygdala processes fear in combination with the signaling from our heart. This brain-heart connection is also at work when we experience feelings of compassion and empathizing with other people’s emotional states.  As David Malone says,

“it is our heart working in tandem with our brain that allows us to feel for others … It is ultimately what makes us human… Compassion is the heart’s gift to the rational mind.”


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