It is February, and everywhere I look, I see roses, cards, and chocolate hearts. Although, as a therapist, I like the increase in gift certificate sales. I can't help but notice that Valentine's Day has, at least partially, become an over-commercialized remnant of what once was. Ironically enough, just as commercialism might have tainted Valentine's Day a bit, scientific reductionism has done the same to our view of the heart itself.
Once viewed by philosophers, poets, scholars, and prophets as the source of love, wisdom, intuition, and emotional "thought," the current view of the heart has been reduced to one of a four-chambered pump that sustains life.
In the book "The Little Prince," by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the Fox says to the little prince, "And now here is my secret, an effortless secret: it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye." I think this quote's meaning is potent - with the eyes, one can see wealth, beauty, and fame, but with the heart, one can feel and perhaps even understand love, loyalty, friendship, and truth.
So if the heart is simply a pump, how can it help us feel or understand love? Researchers like those at the Institute of HeartMath are working to answer this and other questions, such as how the heart communicates with the brain and how it influences information processing, perceptions, emotions, and health. This research has established that the heart functions as an information processing center hardwired for bidirectional communication with the brain.
Interestingly enough, the neural connections going from the heart to the brain outnumber the brain's connections to the heart. Additionally, many of the heart's connections terminate in key brain centers that affect perception and autonomic response, such as the thalamus, hypothalamus, and amygdala.
Other than acting as an information processing center, the heart is also an endocrine gland, which has cells that produce and release the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine and the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is sometimes referred to as the "love hormone" because recent research indicates that this hormone is involved in cognition, tolerance, adaptation, social recognition, pair bonding, and maternal behaviors. Fascinatingly enough, the concentrations of oxytocin found in the heart are greater than those found in the brain.
Besides neural and chemical communication, it has been found that each time the heartbeats, a pulse of electricity flow from the heart through the circulatory system. As a result of this electric current, a magnetic field is created in the surrounding space that has been measured up to 15 feet away from the body.
Have you had an experience where you walked into a room and immediately sense that something was wrong? Perhaps it was your heart's magnetic field that turned your brain into the disharmony in the environment. This rhythm of the heartbeat varies based on emotional state - specifically, negative emotions can result in heart rhythms that are erratic and disorganized. In contrast, positive emotions tend to increase harmony and coherence in the heart rhythms.
Ultimately, just as we know Valentine's Day intends to share the love in our hearts, we know we must listen to our hearts to hear its messages of guidance. We convey our love through our intentions and actions; greeting cards and chocolates are simply a representation of something invisible to the eye.