“If the 20th century has been, so to speak, the Century of the Brain, then the 21st century should be the Century of the Heart.”
(Schwartz and Russe, in Pearsall, 1998 p. xiii)
If we turn to contemporary science to shed light on the nature of the heart, we find another series of interesting and provocative enigmas. Although humankind has long ascribed emotional and feeling states to the heart, modern psychologists typically identify the brain’s limbic system as the centre for emotional reactions. Since consciousness and the mind are taken to exist within the head, it seems natural to assume that the brain is the site where we experience emotions and feelings. Thus, scientists seldom consider that consciousness and emotions exist physically in relationship to the heart, the autonomic nervous system or other parts of the body. The idea, that the heart might be a centre for psychological experience is as alien to modern scientific thought as that of the existence of the soul. Nevertheless, the enigmas of the heart are intimately tied to the issues of human consciousness and soul.
The heart has traditionally been the basic symbol of life. From four weeks after conception, when it begins to beat, until death, the heart maintains life within the material body. The heart’s regular contractions pump de-oxygenated blood to the lungs, where it is oxygenated, and returned to the heart, and then pumped out through the network of arteries which interpenetrate the body and brain. Oxygenated blood is red in colour and travels through the body in arteries and capillaries; while the blue, de-oxygenated blood returns to the heart through the veins. The blood is the river of life maintaining all the cells and organs through the transport of oxygen and other nutrients. Oxygen is the fuel of life required for vital and metabolic processes within the body/mind.
Modern science regards the heart as essentially being a mechanical pump, which is composed of soft muscle tissue. Nevertheless, the scientific knowledge of the heart is far from complete and there are a number of major enigmas regarding its nature. The most notable of these enigmas is the long standing mystery of the heart’s pacemaker. The pacemaker is identified with the sino-atrial node (SA Node) situated near the top of the right atrium. This body of cells produces the basic life impulse–the spark of life–which propagates through the heart in three phases, causing the contraction and relaxation of the various heart chambers. What produces the basic life spark within the S A Node? In a Scientific American article, Adolph addressed this issue: "How does the pacemaker work? On this central question there are, unfortunately, very few clues so far. ... Indeed no model yet suggested has given us much enlightenment on how the pacemaker translates metabolic energy into its rhythmic beat, how it synchronizes the discharges of its many cells or how it changes the tempo of its beat as it ages. ... To sum up, it appears that when the heart of the embryo begins to beat, it functions as an independent organ, driven only by its own inherent pacemaker." (1967)
Fifteen years later, an article from Science Digest informs us that the issues of the pacemaker remain unsolved: "About 70 times each minute, more than 2.5 billion times in a lifetime, the heart beats on. What keeps it going? The heart, it seems, has a life of its own. The muscle fibres that make it up differ from those elsewhere in the body in that some of them generate their own electricity without receiving signals from the brain. In fact, the fetal heart begins beating before it has even formed nerve connections. The heart’s pacemaker is a group of self-triggering cells called the sinoatrial (SA) node. ... What initiates the current in the SA node remains unknown, but its cells behave more like neurons than muscle fibres." (1984, Aug., p.90)
The cells of the SANode are permeated with sodium and potassium ions which create a polarized environment, in which the inside of the cell is negatively charged and the outside is positively charged. At regular intervals, the cell membranes leak and cause the cell to depolarize. As a result, the cells contract and an electric impulse is generated, a basic electrical spark which brings life into the heart. The mystery of how these impulses originate has yet to be fully explained in terms of biochemical and metabolic processes.
Psychologist Barbara Brown (1974) comments upon the enigma of the heartbeat: "The genesis of the heartbeat is as unknown as the genesis of man, and equally a miracle. A squib of tissue so small and so well camouflaged as to be unseen by the naked eye is the progenitor of beats. By some unknown ultrachemistry, this squib of tissues generates a flow of electric impulses, bip-bip-bip, one after the other with bewildering unmatched regularity. ... The generator is inborn, inherent." (pp. 227-8 )
Like Adolph, Brown assumes that this generator is programmed by metabolic energy. Certainly, it is reasonable for a scientist to seek a material cause in attempting to resolve the mysterious generation of the heartbeat. Nevertheless, Brown’s comments are most appropriate: “The genesis of the heartbeat is as unknown as the genesis of man ...”!
The role which most people attribute to the heart, as being the center of the emotional life, is another intriguing paradox associated with this mysterious organ. The heart is the most powerful symbol of human emotions: We talk of “loving with our hearts,” of being “heartbroken,” of having “a heavy heart,” of knowing compassion and caring “with the heart,” or of experiencing excitement and anxiety, when “the heart skips a beat.” When we see cruelty, we wonder how someone can be so “heartless,” so selfish and contracted about themselves, so cold-blooded. We talk of “hearty” welcomes, if our “hearts are in it;” of “losing heart” and giving up hope; of knowing “heartache,” with the loss of love.
Certainly, one would be wary of someone who claimed to love you with “all of their head,” instead of “all of their heart”! If someone proclaimed to love you with all of their limbic system or their cerebral cortex, you might want to refer them to a psychiatrist, or to Drs. Sagan, Crick or Chalmers. The literary, poetic and musical dimensions of human life attest to the life, loves and sufferings of the heart and soul. The heart is regarded as a mind of its own, one which can function quite independently of the brain. The heart is regarded as being the core of our being, the deeper self. We speak of getting to the heart of a matter, when we attempt to penetrate to the core of something, or to its essence. Are these and other expressions simply metaphors, or do they indicate that life, human emotions and intuitive wisdom, are somehow related to the hidden dimensions of the heart?
In New Mind, New Body, Barbara Brown provides fascinating insights into the enigmas of the heart. The heart plays a role in the experiencing of emotions and feeling, in willing, in having a mind of its own, in learning and knowing, and in healing. She describes the heart as having a secret life, intricately connected to the thoughts, feelings and desires of the individual. Brown explains how, in different experiments, the heart can learn without “the conscious mind” knowing; the heart is the most sensitive of the organs to emotional states; and the heart rate increases or decreases with the shifting of attention and conscious awareness.
The study of yogis and biofeedback training demonstrates that the heart can be brought under various forms of self-control. Brown describes how some yogis can radically lower their heart rate or even stop their hearts for brief periods. Others exercise control over their vascular systems, altering blood flow to particular parts of the body in very specific ways. The experimental evidence suggests that changes in the heart rate can be brought about through “intention,” as though the heart has its own “will.” Brown concludes that a very strong feedback mechanism exists between the brain and the heart, which somehow involves the control and awareness of emotions.
These observations represent a major enigma: Is there a consciousness of the heart, or are we conscious of feelings and emotions in the heads alone? Human experience suggests that consciousness is not confined to the cerebral cortex but can be experienced throughout the body. Brown comments: "Perhaps the confusion related to the heart’s learning lies in the researcher’s head. There seems to be an unending war between the mind of the heart and the ideas of the researcher." (1974, p. 258)
Indeed, the central tenet of the head doctrine–that consciousness is produced within the brain–would appear to be the result of confusion in the researchers’ head.
In Towards a Science of Consciousness, Kenneth Pelletier (1978) argued for an expanded view of the possible nature of consciousness. Pelletier questioned the validity of the head doctrine, which he labelled the “under the hat theory of consciousness:” "In contrast to this naive belief (of the under the hat theory of consciousness) stands a vast array of information, ranging from Vedantic texts to laboratory research results, that supports the concept that the entire body is an instrument of consciousness. One particular component of awareness resides in the brain, while other physiological systems of the body seem more attuned to other aspects of awareness. Thus, our language is laden with expressions indicating that the seat of the emotions lies within the heart and cardiovascular system. ... According to their tradition, the Hopi ‘knew’that consciousness resided in the heart and they thought white men were foolish because they believed that they thought with their heads. Were a Hopi researcher approaching the problem of the neurophysiological basis of consciousness, he would elect to make a detailed analysis of the electrical activity of the heart rather than the brain." (pp. 23 &22)
Quite simply, there is absolutely no reason to assume that consciousness is located exclusively within the head. In fact, the entire body, including the heart and the cardiovascular system, could be construed as being an instrument for consciousness. Even if we accept the idea that consciousness is produced by neurological activity, then we must recognize the electromagnetic and neurological fields generated by and within the heart itself. The heart has its own neurological system, including the SA Node, which is independent of the brain. In addition, the autonomic nervous system exists outside of the central nervous system, and it effects many organs and glands related to emotional and instinctual functions. Neurological activity is not simply confined to the brain but extends throughout the body, and scientists have done nothing to demonstrate why only the brain’s neural activity would produce consciousness. It seems entirely reasonable to suppose that the heart’s neural activity is also linked with the experience of consciousness.
In The Heart’s Code, psychologist Paul Pearsall (1998) maintains that, energetically speaking, the heart–rather than the brain–is clearly the centre of the psychological universe. Indeed:, to the contrary: "The heart’s EMF (electro-magnetic field) is five thousand times more powerful than the electromagnetic field created by the brain and, in addition to its immense power, has subtle, non-local effects that travel within these forms of energy. ... the heart generates over fifty thousand femtoteslas (a measure of EMF) compared to less than ten femtoteslas recorded from the brain." (p. 55)
The profound significance of these facts leads Gary Schwartz and Linda Russe, in the forward of Pearsall’s book, to comment:
"The Heart’s Code points the way to a new revolution in our thinking. Metaphorically, the heart is the sun, the pulsing, energetic centre of our biophysical “solar”system, and the brain is the earth, one of the most important planets in our biophysical system. One implication of the energy cardiology/cardio-energetic revolution is the radical (meaning “root”) idea that energetically, the brain revolves around the heart, not the other way around." (1998, p. xii)
The heart is the largest source of biophysical energy in the body and within our psychological life. In Pearsall’s view, the heart involves energy and information that comprises the essence or soul of who we are.
The idea, that the heart is the centre of the psychology of the individual, instead of the brain, would indeed revolutionize our understanding of normal and supernormal psychology. Adopting this view would be analogous to the Copernican revolution, wherein scientists realized that the earth, rather than being the centre of the universe, travelled around the sun within the solar system. The egocentric attitude of humans was shattered. Likewise, the acceptance of a deeper conceptualization of the heart, consciousness and the nature of Self would constitute a revolutionary development in modern psychology, philosophy and the life sciences.
In 1996, Drs. R. Allan and S. Scheidt proposed that modern psychology should include a field of “cardiac psychology,” as a branch of health psychology. Cardiac psychologists have generally focussed on identifying the psychological, social and environmental risk factors for heart disease, and the psychological repercussions of heart attacks and other cardiac illness. Pearsall, Schwartz and Russek, and others propose a broader definition of cardiac psychology: one in which the heart is regarded as a thinking, feeling, and willing organ, with profound energetic influences on humans’ psychological life.
The heart has its own form of intelligence, independent of the brain. It can perceive internal and external stimuli, and react on its own to the outside world. It communicates “an info-energetic code” which is conveyed through tens of thousands of miles of vessels and 75 trillion cells of the heart and circulatory system. In addition, neurotransmitters, which are found in the brain, have also been discovered in the heart. The heart produces the hormone and neuro-peptide, Atrial Naturetic Factor (ANF), which communicates with the brain, particularly the limbic system and hypothalymus which mediate emotions, and the pineal gland which regulates sleep/waking cycles, aging processes and activity levels. The activities of the heart are also recognized to have effects on the immune system and, consequently on physical health. Pearsall notes: "As research from neurocardiology continues, it is becoming clearer that the central role of the heart in our consciousness is much more than metaphor and that, as happened with the brain, continuing research will reveal complexities of a conscious heart that our brain cannot yet imagine." (1998, P. 69)
Pearsall states that we have been too “brain focussed” in the search for mind, and that instead of thinking in terms of a dual mind and body, a more rewarding and appropriate approach would be to adopt a triune model: that is, of a thinking brain, the material body and the energetic and emotional heart. The heart is the primary energy centre within the individual, and in Pearsall’s terms “conveys the code that represents the soul.”
Pearsall examines the nature of cellular memory, life fields and non-local information fields in attempts to account for the various clinical and psychological evidences that are emerging about the mysterious qualities and role of the human heart. # The heart’s attributes and functions are much more mysterious and significant than conventional scientific thinking supposes. He states that, through the psychology of the heart, modern psychology is “beginning to make its first tentative contacts with the soul.” (p. 6)
The remarkable stories of heart transplant recipients bear testimony to the secrets of the heart. Pearsall recounts an incident which happened to him after he had presented a lecture on the heart’s role in human’s psychological and spiritual life. A member of the audience, a psychiatrist was moved to tears as she recounted a dramatic story about an eight year old girl who had been the recipient of a heart transplant. The heart donor, a ten year old girl, had been murdered. After the transplant, the recipient suffered nightmares about the man who had killed the doner, and was able to describe the time, weapon, and place, the man’s appearance, what the little girl had said to her assailant, and so on. The police were able to identify and prosecute the murder based on her evidence! Somehow the recipient had access to the memories, information and emotional terror, and the soul influences of the donor!
In A Change Of Heart (1997), Claire Sylvia, the recipient of a heart-transplant, recounts her remarkable experiences. She describes how the energies, emotions, and soul life of the donor seemed to become intertwined with her own. Thus, she experienced an extraordinary metamorphosis after her transplant, as she acquired her donor’s food and beverage preferences, his conflicted feelings towards and conflicts with his father, his sexual attractions and impulses, and energy dynamics! Her dreams of the donor enabled her to establish who he had been, to meet his family and to learn more about him. Apparently, heart-transplant recipients frequently report such astonishing experiences. Nevertheless, doctors, scientists and other professionals either dismiss or politely ignore these intriguing phenomena. Of course, thinking from their heads, such learned people do not acknowledge or even imagine that the heart could hold such mysteries or pose such enigmatic challenges to established knowledge about the nature of consciousness and mind.