Where, oh where, is fancy bred?
In the heart or in the head?
–Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice
The heart is a powerful muscle, delivering nourishment and energy throughout the body, second by second and minute by minute. The sound of a heartbeat signifies life, fear, elation, and anxiety – the approach of a leopard and the approach of a beloved. One of the most joyous sounds is of a heartbeat in a mother’s womb; the joyous picture is the sonogram of that beating heart. The heart has been described since ancient times as the seat of emotions, though 20th century scientists in the age of “better” information designated the brain as the true ruler of emotions rather than the heart. How did the ancients get it wrong? Or did they?
Blame it on Aristotle. Blame it on the Catholic and the Lutheran Church. Blame it on the Cro-Magnons.
For Valentine’s Day, I set out to find out where the scalloped heart shape came from and why the heart was identified as the seat of emotion. As with all investigation into historical and scientific evidence, the answer is … complicated.
The symbol of the heart is to the heart what Tang is to real orange juice. The symbol resembles the heart, but everyone knows it’s not the real thing. The human heart has multiple openings for blood vessels and aortic chambers and resembles more of an upside downed pine cone than the simplistic thing with the two bumps and point.
That scallop symbol is ancient and ubiquitous. The simple shape been found on cave paintings that date back 10,000 years next to Cro-Magnon hunting scenes, though with no obvious connection to love. As social media friends have shared recently, the shape is found all over nature – of course it has – just like a cross or a diamond or circle.
Original depictions of the heart, in 13th century statues and paintings, shaped the heart more like an upside down pine cone. The earliest designated is a 1250 illustration called Roman a poire, with a knight kneeling to give something … must be his heart … to his lady love. (Although it could have been a pine cone? Or another part of his anatomy? ) Modern scholars wonder whether the symbol reminded our ancestors of a seed from the silphium plant, a plant that was either contraceptive or an aphrodisiac, ergo sexual overtones, ergo love, heart, ipso facto.
Roman a poire, @1250
The Catholic Church also allowed depictions of the notion of the “sacred heart,” of Jesus providing love and compassion to humanity. Many artistic themes showed Jesus or the saints giving their heart – their sacred pine cone, with or without flames shooting out of it– to each other. By the 1400s, the pine cone turned with point downward and replaced the multiple holes with two bumps. The scallop came to signify the heart in the same way that the cross represented all of Christianity.
But who decided that the heart was the seat of emotion anyway?
Many cultures connected the heart to emotions, although traditions varied. The Egyptians thought the heart was the seat of truth; when you died, your heart was weighed against the feather of truth and if your life was full of wrongdoing, demons would eat your heart. The Indians linked emotions to breathing, not the bloodstream, though they did use the heartbeat and pulse for all sorts of accurate medical diagnoses. But the Chinese saw the heart as the ruler of the body – governor of health, of thought, of feeling, and of well-being. That was also where Aristotle landed. He believed the heart – being core to the body – was core to its processes. The heart was the seat of reason, thought, and emotion. The development of much European philosophy, relying on Aristotle for ideas, used that as the starting point. Aristotle invented most western European ideas, even the wrong ones.
I put my hand upon my heart
And swore that we should never part
I wonder what I might have said
If I had put it on my heart
Nowadays, scientists explain that it is the limbic system of the brain that is the correct description of the seat of emotion. Emotions are triggered by a system that connects the amygdala, the hippocampus, and those wacky thalamus glands together. The big gray pink blob which Aristotle thought was only for cooling the body is actually in charge. The amygdala and glands release biochemicals across neural pathways which create emotional reactions.
In the “fight or flight” response, when the brain sees a leopard, the amygdala processes the sensory information and starts the body moving – adrenaline is released, heartbeat speeds up, and muscles are ready to move. Often, this happens before the consciousness of You realizes it has occurred; you move in response to a loud noise, for example, before you realize there has been a loud noise.
Other scientific evidence mounted. When we feel love (or sexual desire), the heart and the rest of the body respond with the flow of blood increasing in embarrassing places though decreasing curiously in others. Hands and feet go cold as the circulation decreases. Even the digestive system (butterflies) and the skin glands (sweaty palms) get involved. Experiments also show that emotions are affected when parts of the brain are damaged or removed.
As one argument goes, heart surgery shows that a heart can be completely replaced, but the person still loves. Even with an artificial heart – even with a mechanical, robot heart – patients can still feel emotions. You can change out your heart but still feel love. For the same person you loved before. Therefore, the heart can not be the seat of love.
And Western sonnet writers and poets were never the same.
But hold your horses, sparky. Were they really all wrong? If we pick apart the body’s processes, maybe the interaction between brain and heart is more balanced, more integrated than has been suggested. When the brain reacts, hormones are released – dopamine, serotonin, adrenaline, or epinephrine. How do the hormones get to the body? Through the bloodstream! Those aren’t just nerve signals but coordinated through the circulatory system, i.e. by the heart.
Wait, there’s more! When people experience moments of great anger or intense grief, they have heart attacks not brain attacks. Even a stroke is defined as when the blood supply is interrupted — the blood supplied — by the heart. Emotional trauma is cardiac, not cerebriac.
More recent studies examining the heart take it further. In David Malone’s film, “Of Hearts and Minds,” he points out that the heart and brain work together in producing emotions. As the ancients noted, the heart is part of the emotional response, often the part we notice. However, that does not make it subservient to the brain. In fact, the heart has its own neurons. The right ventricle of the heart has thousands of specialized neurons and these neurons can be stimulated, causing the heart to change even when not attached to a brain. These theories suggest that the heart and brain communicate together over emotions; it’s a two-way street.
Positive emotions reduce your chance of a heart attack. Thinking positively influences the heart. Other tests show that fear is processed with the heart; creating fear in sync with a heartbeat causes a different reaction than when created out of synch with the heartbeat. The heart and the brain work together, as David Malone says, through compassion.
Compassion is the heart’s gift to the rational mind.
– David Malone
Ultimately, the Cadburys probably had this dualism right all along. They were the chocolate innovators who improved the process of making and distributing smooth, creamy chocolate on a large scale. By “borrowing” the cocoa press from the Dutch, they used it to improve cocoa powder (which back in the day often had flour added to it!) More importantly, the press extracted cocoa butter that let the Cadburys create better chocolate. Richard, the artist brother, then liked to put the candies in decorative boxes – flower-shaped, animal-shaped, and… yup … heart-shaped.
Eating chocolate releases endorphins in the brain as well as serotonin, our pleasure hormone. The sound of the “oh of pleasure” is the heart’s reaction to chocolate; eating chocolate is like feeling love. The biochemistry and the emotions of the heart are linked together. So what better way to celebrate love, to get both the brain and the heart to work together in integrating an emotional response, than to eat chocolate from a heart-shaped box.
We need not decide whether to put hand on head or heart – as C.D.B. Ellis mused – we only need to put our hand on a box of chocolates.
Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war,
How to divide the conquest of thy sight;
Mine eye my heart thy picture’s sight would bar,
My heart mine eye the freedom of that right.
My heart doth plead that thou in him dost lie,
A closet never pierced with crystal eyes,
But the defendant doth that plea deny,
And says in him thy fair appearance lies.
To ‘cide this title is impannelled
A quest of thoughts, all tenants to the heart;
And by their verdict is determined
The clear eye’s moiety, and the dear heart’s part:
As thus: mine eye’s due is thine outward part,
And my heart’s right, thine inward love of heart.