The heart, the ancients believed, was the seat of all emotion. We modern, rational beings know better; science tells us that it is the brain that processes stimuli, rallies the chemical and electrical resources and gives the body its marching orders. When something frightens us, saddens us, moves us – when we see a loved one, when we spy an enemy, when music or drama touches us in the most intellectual or primal of ways – it is the brain that’s behind it all, juicing the system. It is natural that the heart would have been pre-science’s candidate for the center of feelings, because that is where we tend to most noticeably feel them: in the rapid rhythm of fight or flight, in the skipped beat born of beauty and desire.
And yet … no matter how many studies prove the brain’s preeminence, we – who, like candies, have a hard nut of the primitive tucked inside our coating of rationality, always ready to get stuck in our scientific teeth – refuse to fully believe it. It is to the displaced, status-lowered heart that we turn to explain ourselves. We can be heartsick, an important action is heartfelt, when we are courageous we have heart, or are urged to build courage by taking heart (and, conversely, when we are cowardly or have little faith, we have lost heart or are disheartened); at sad news we come with a heavy heart, when love ends we are heartbroken, with good news we are heartened, joy plays a song in our heart, it is heartily that we grab the gusto, and heartlessly we steal it from others …
And on, and so forth. Science tells us that the heart has nothing to do with these adjectives and adverbs – but just try to replace “heart” with “brain” and see how thuddingly it falls from the lips. “Brainfelt”? “You gotta have brain”? “I come with a heavy brain”? No, don’t think so.
Granted, the brain as Numero Uno is the product of scientific principles that have been around for far fewer years than the centuries, the millennia in which beliefs and superstitions about the capabilities of the heart have existed. Moreover, the brain just doesn’t have the romantic aura that the heart possesses. The brain is the Rodney Dangerfield of major organs – it gets no respect. It’s dull – compared to the kinetic heart, the brain just sits there and does perceptibly nothing, a spongy mass that might as well not be there for all we are aware of it – and, of course, that’s its fault, since it is what allows us to have awareness at all. (To add insult to injury, the most cataclysmic of brain ills – a stroke – is erroneously thought by many people to be something to do with the heart, so much so that medical popularizers have tried to rename it in the public mind as a “brain attack.”) We have a likeable, instantly recognizable, stylized cartoon-version, Be My Valentine drawing of the heart – there is no such vernacular illustration for the brain. (Indeed, we have Valentine’s Day, a celebration of the loving heart; no such brain day exists, unless we’re talking about the College Boards.) The brain struggles for identity because, though it sits, synapses sparking and leaping mere millimeters behind the sensory inlets of our eyes, nose, mouth and ears, we ignore and devalue its powerful and necessary contribution to our very being and believe that we are creatures of the “mind” – something we deem as being different and removed from the brain.
The brain, in other words, lacks placeness. The heart is lousy with it – it is, in our minds, the place. Some of that is because we can feel it, and we can see it causing our chest to rise and fall; it is the first machine within us that we become aware of, and, when it is time for us to end, it has the final word. Moreover, the heart’s placeness has much to do with its actual place, its location – right smack dab in the middle of our body, upfront and vulnerable. The brain is, though right here in our head, tucked away somewhere within a protective shell. In earlier arslocii essays, we spoke about how placeness is a partner with empathy; oddly, though empathy is a function of brain plus experience plus genetics, we rarely think of the brain as an empathetic force or repository, but rather as a cold, analytical mechanism – it is the blood-pumping device called the heart that we see as the font of empathy. And let us not overlook the Hallmark Card-ish sentiment that within “heart” is “art.”
If we are to be modern and rational adherents to the scientific method, we must and should find it not difficult to embrace the notion that the brain rules. But so long as we retain the basic animal in us, so long as mystery and imagination and metaphor are part of what we are, so long as we know that we do not know, so long as we know that science is wonderful but imperfect and sometimes blindered – so long as all these contingencies exist, and so long as we humans see the heart the way we want to see it, then maybe there is something to it, maybe there is some sort of spiritual autonomy and power that resides in the heart. Maybe we’ve been able to intuit that, sense it, a certain something that science will one day catch up with. Maybe we’ll learn that in some ways the brain takes its orders from the heart, not vice versa – that the heart is not just a dumb pump but something that has a brain, too. Maybe poetry is right; wouldn’t that be nice? Paraphrasing the words of the current pope, who is the brain to judge?