In a Brainy Age, the Heart Retains its Symbolic Power

Scientists no longer believe that the soul lives in the heart—but we continue to use it as a metaphor for far more than just its physical function.

Sukree Sukplang / Reuters

These days, the brain is where it’s at. “It” being our minds, our personalities, our behaviors, our memories, our consciousness. The lumpy chunk of grey between our ears is the part of the human body scientists are most excited to study. When President Obama announced his BRAIN Initiative, to map the human brain, the New York Times called the brain “the next frontier.”

But the pedestal the brain currently occupies used to belong to the heart. For much of history, the heart was the seat of what made humans human, as Fay Bound Alberti, an honorary senior research fellow at Queen Mary University of London, writes in her new book This Mortal Coil, a history of how culture has treated the body. And as the focus shifted to the brain, and scientists began to think of the heart purely in terms of its physical function, the heart nonetheless retained a glimmer of its former emotional, spiritual aura. The English language is full of metaphors invoking the heart. People wear their hearts on their sleeve; they have hearts of stone, or hearts of gold; they have heart-to-heart conversations. Other languages have many similar metaphors.

I spoke with Bound Alberti about how the poetry and metaphor of the heart has helped the physical heart hold onto a psychological significance, even in this, the era of the brain. A lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.

Julie Beck: You write that, for much of history, the heart was the most important organ for selfhood. Why did people think that your self was something that physically resided in your heart?

Fay Bound Alberti: So the ancient Greeks had what we call a cardiocentric view of the body. I suppose because it’s the first part of the body that demonstrates life through beating, they saw the heart as the center of the human body. The organ was imbued with psychological characteristics, but also was the space where the soul moved through the body, bringing together the mind and the body with the divine. That was also evident in those physiological feelings that we have in our chest that are linked to our emotional state. So for 2000 years we have this image of the body as being entirely driven by the heart, and the heart lies at the center of our psychological well-being and character as well as our relationship with God.

Beck: Was this part and parcel with the four humors? Since blood was one of the humors and the heart pumps blood?

Bound Alberti: There were four different humors in the body. Each one was responsible for a different emotion. And if the soul moved through the body and determined that an event was negative and disturbing, then the heart would summon the appropriate humors. Either choler, so that the body could run fast away from the threatening object, or melancholy, in which case the heart would feel down, sunken, and the body would retreat into itself. So the heart was responsible for summoning these humors that were made in the liver.

Beck: It was also a heating/cooling thing, right? Which also kind of had to do with personality. Could you explain that a bit?

Bound Alberti: In the early modern period you have the heart, which is responsible for the heat of the body, and the brain, which is basically the body’s refrigerator. Under humoral medicine what you have is a balance of heat in the body. Men were hotter than women for instance, who were wet. And the reason was that the heat was supposedly burning up the hair on the men’s head, which is why women’s hair is longer, and it burns up flesh which is why women’s bodies are fatter. So you have an incredible gendering of the body around the heat that operates through the heart. At this point the brain is just a cooling organ and has no importance to most physiological interpretations. It's all about the heart.

Beck: When did we start to shift away from that?

Bound Alberti: Well, it's a fascinating aspect of the history of physiology really. On the one hand, for the first time in the 17th century people can cut open human bodies and look inside, do vivisection and dissection in a way you weren’t allowed to legally in the earlier period, for religious reasons. So you have the heart, increasingly from the 17th century but specifically in the 19th century, being regarded as this organ that you could compare and classify and contrast with other organs. And you also have the removal of the soul from the body in medicine generally. So the heart becomes an automated organ.

And the second big shift is you have philosophical ideas about the self, starting really from Rene Descartes in the 16th century, who talked about that disjuncture between mind and body. He introduced notions of the reflex and so on, which gave organs like the heart these integral properties—they could pump on their own. So Rene Descartes separated the passions from reason, and this coincides with work like physicians like William Harvey who talk about the circulation of the blood. Once you have the circulation of the blood, then the humoral model cannot survive. We can't be composed of these different humors that move around the body when actually the blood is being circulated all the time. So you have this convergence of philosophical, medical, and scientific belief that ultimately makes the heart less significant in relation to our mental selves and our spiritual selves, and prioritizes the brain. That's how we've ended up now in a very neuroscientific age where we're all about the brain.

Beck: Did they think the soul was something that no longer had any physical component?

Bound Alberti: Interestingly not. Rene Descartes wanted to view the body as still having a soul, but what he did was he moved the soul from the heart to the brain. He put it in the pineal gland, which is just behind the eyebrows. One of the reasons he did that was that facial expressions are very important in showing emotion. And he figured that actually, if you’ve got the soul working behind the eyebrows, that makes sense.

Beck: Scientists were thinking of the heart more as just part of the body, just another organ, but the poets were not having it, right?

Bound Alberti: That's right. So in the late 18th, early 19th century, the peak of the process by which the heart was becoming objectified, you've got the rise of the Romantic poets who reinforced the idea that there was something very heartfelt about what lurks in our chest. Those languages of emotions being heartfelt, hearts rising and sinking, being heavy-hearted, light-hearted, having the heart of a lion and so on—those metaphors and the language in which we talk about the heart, show that we still, even at the very peak of scientific medicine, have those associations of the heart being psychologically and emotionally, even spiritually important.

Beck: It seems like that period of poetry had a really big influence. We still use the heart to describe personality, you mentioned that in the book, like you could be cold-hearted, or tender-hearted, or empty-hearted. The poets kind of won, didn’t they?

Bound Alberti: I see there being a really strong and problematic disjuncture in modern medicine, as a result of these changes. On the one hand you've got the surgeons who do really important valuable work on the heart, transplantations and so on. But when I’ve spoken to the surgeons, they don’t want to imagine that the heart has any more significance than being a pump that sends the blood around the body and beats 100,000 times a day because they couldn’t bear to do their job.

But then you also have people who continue to view the heart as something that is symbolic and psychological. There’s some evidence of this in heart transplants, where you have people who’ve received a heart from another person and claim that they have all kinds of personality changes, like they're craving different food as a result. That isn’t to say that demonstrates that there’s anything more fundamentally real, if you like, about the heart as opposed to the brain as a way of talking about the self. But what's interesting to me is you've got these different narratives of understanding behavior.

And actually the medical community, through work like that done at the HeartMath Institute are slowly moving toward a cellular memory being located in the heart. Which actually, gives a very modern scientific explanation for the kinds of phenomena we’re seeing in people who identify a heart transplant as being psychologically changing.

Beck: That's like, very fringe though, isn't it?

Bound Alberti: Yes, yes. But with something so dramatic and life-changing as heart surgery or heart transplantation, you can understand why all these different cultural ideas might come into play.

Beck: I wonder about the cellular memory stuff, I'm not sure how... legit that is.

Bound Alberti: It’s not mainstream and it’s absolutely not that I wish to say that it is the way ahead. But what I have found in looking at different ways the body's been interpreted, is it becomes another story that we tell about the body. So in a sense whether it’s true or not is not as important to me as the fact that people use it as a way of explaining their world.

Beck: That is interesting because I think you do see this with a lot of alternative medicine stuff where people are suffering from a disease that's not well understood yet like chronic fatigue, or something like that. And because we believe in science so much, it's much more comforting or you just want to have a scientific narrative even if the actual science isn't there yet.

Bound Alberti: I think that’s true. We are basically products of the 19th century scientific revolution that redefined how we view our bodies. I think it's the same in America as it is in most of Europe. We want to be able to objectify things, we want to name them, we want to classify them, and that gives a degree of comfort. But I think in a sense it also makes us question the medical framework that we live by. So when you have medical students dissecting bodies, they talk about the fact that actually it feels both frightening and privileged to cut open the heart and look at it. Because they, like everybody else, are imbued with these cultural ideas that just exist in the ether. So we’re trying to be very objective, very materialistic in how we view the human body, but of course even the practitioners don't always see things that way.

Beck: And they felt that way more even about the heart than the brain, right?

Bound Alberti: Yeah. I think what you find in medical students—and I feel this really takes us to the heart of the matter—they tend to view cutting up the brain as problematic in the same way that cutting up the heart is problematic. But when they cut open the brain they tend to talk more about thoughts and memories, and whether or not they’re cutting through those immaterial processes. But when they talk about dissecting the heart it’s much more about love and feeling.

If I give talks and I say to people, “Could you point to the location of your mind?” they point to their head. When I say “Where is your soul?”, they point to their chest. So I think in popular culture, we have these competing organs, the brain and the heart.

Beck: One thing that’s interesting to me is how we ascribe an agency, or a sort of separateness, to the heart. Like, you “listen to your heart”—as though it’s not a part of you. Like it's talking to you, or you’re not totally in touch with it. And people do that with the brain, but it’s much more detached like, “Oh when the brain wants this, you behave this way.” Which is a little different. And I don't think there's any other body parts that we really do that with. Why do you think we talk about the heart that way?

Bound Alberti: I think you're absolutely right. Nowadays we think of our selves as residing in our heads so we are crainiological beings rather than cardiological beings. Part of it I think is that division between reason and emotion, which is also a product of the 19th century. We’re locked in this battle sometimes between our minds and our passions—head over heart and which do we follow. There are interesting gender theory issues around that, because you have the brain which traditionally was associated with reason and very male and very objective, and the heart really becomes female and problematic and all about feelings. That head-heart divide is something that I think is very much built into modern medical structures. We don’t tend think of ourselves anymore as a holistic whole, so we think about our hearts as very separate from our heads.

Beck: I’m wondering about not just contrasting the heart with your head, but thinking of it as not even totally connected to who you are, because you have to listen to it, like “Oh what is your heart telling you?” If it was like “Oh what is your brain telling you?”, you would know. It's like a separate thing that you have to kind of seek out and listen to.

Bound Alberti: To expand on the head and the heart analogy, I think the reason that we do this is that we are used to thinking of our thoughts and our brains as being the rational way we could do something. What we’re doing when we live our lives that way is actually distancing ourselves from our bodies. Our hearts are beating in our chests, and they are a very visceral reminder that our bodies have feelings and our bodies have reactions. But we have learned as crainiological beings to separate ourselves out from our bodies. So sometimes we might be trying to rationalize something, to feel okay about something, but our body, our heartbeat, is telling us there’s a disconnect. I think that’s why we have a rise in body memory work and in body therapies, that focus on the senses that are locked into the body and particularly the heart, that are telling us something different than the rational brain that tries to reason with the world.

Beck: Could you give me an example of what kind of therapies you're talking about?

Bound Alberti: There's quite a lot of body work that’s on trauma. There's work by people like Peter Levine who does somatic experiencing, which focuses on the physical experiences, we have a sinking feeling we associate with fear and so on. People who do body work and somatic forms of therapy, their argument is that we need to bypass this rational brain which talking therapy has focused on, to try to get to what is making us feel lacking in ease within our own bodies. Body work has been most particularly useful for survivors of trauma and sexual abuse. There's different ways of understanding mental and physical health that either relate to what's happening in the brain or what's happening in the heart. Integrated medicine, I think, is finding ways to draw them together. But change is always slow, largely because we’re locked into our original metaphors and our very traditional ways of seeing the body.

Beck: It's interesting because we have such advanced technology now that we can look at genes and neurons and get really computery with it if we want to. Even with all that, is there still something that remains mystical to us about the heart?

Bound Alberti: I think that there is. I think a lot of people still regard their heart as having an essence of self which cannot be read in material terms. There’s metaphors about the heart that are enduring in the language that we discussed, about feeling that something is heartfelt, you're being true to your heart and so on. So the organ carries on that meaning above and beyond any scientific explanation.

And if you think about the iconography as well, there is nothing more iconic than “I heart...” whatever it is, New York, or you. Those sorts of images, of what I call the Hallmark heart, that wonderfully symmetric beautiful blood red sign, have been found throughout the world since the 14th century, and it’s relentlessly the same across cultures, which is fascinating because it has no comparison to the bloodied slab on the butcher's block. This is a fantastical heart, which represents unity, it represents sex, it represents love, in a way that the brain can never visually represent, because it's not such a beautiful aesthetically pleasing symbol, is it?