The Heart: both Organ and Symbol, intertwined Fact and Fiction.

Liam Reading Art Heart Symbol & Organ
Art by Liam Reading

Since today is both Valentine’s Day and Organ Donation Awareness Day, both occasions ripe for the proliferation of illustrative and linguistic allusions to the heart, it feels fitting to share some intellectual gold nuggets on the topic. Prepare to rethink how you view the heart. I’m back after my month-and-a-half blog hiatus, and the following paradigm-altering ideas I am putting forth will hopefully be a reader-friendly abbreviation of the literature review on ‘the heart’ I composed early on in my ongoing Master’s degree.


What do you- yes, you!- think of when someone mentions ‘the heart’?

Do you think of the fleshy organ?

Or do you think of the object- nay, subject– of poets, romantics and metaphysicians alike?

If, like most of us, you think of both meanings, and hold them in your mind as individual separate concepts, and think of either depending on the context…

….and if you think of the physical transplant-able organ as the real factual heart but the heart of love, courage and spirituality as a fictive metaphor for qualities that science tells us is embodied in our grey matter…

…then this is actually a sign that we are perceiving the idea of ‘the heart’ through a collection of particular perceptual lenses.


Some notable Ideology Glasses we are wearing when we fall into the habit of thinking like this are as follows:

  • Cartesian Dualism: meaning that there is a divided dichotomy of matter and spirit. The heart is a word that covers the two distinct separate hearts.
  • Scientific Materialism: only the material (heart as organ), which can be observed, measured and quantified by scientific instruments, is provably real; all else is an illusion and ultimately phenomena which can be explained by and as material.
  • Scientism: the idea that there is a cultural ideology that science as a intellectual specialism is equivalent to truth. It explains why science holds the highest societal and cultural esteem and dominates narratives of truth over and above the arts and humanities fields of knowledge. With scientism, the scientific (heart as organ) is essential; the artistic (heart as locus of love and courage) is a secondary luxury. Fact comes first; fiction is inspired by fact and a distortion of it.

Ideology Glasses Art

Being able to perceive the way these lenses determine what is truth allows us to consider that the seemingly innocuous assumption, that —-one word- heart- can have multiple meanings but only one meaning that is allowed to be valid—- is perhaps worth reconsidering.  

It is due to intellectual disciplines becoming increasingly specialised and knowledge becoming compartmentalised (ever since the Enlightenment era’s championing of Logic and domination creating a reorganisation of academia) that the factual is right and the fictive is mere poetic flourish. Obscured in this separation of realities into categories of right and wrong is the possibility of validity in all meanings and therefore the possibility of interconnection between differing realities. This is where the value and strength of interdisciplinarity comes to the fore.

Recent academic research in the last 25 years by scientists such as Montreal University alumnus Andrew Armour in conjunction to the HeartMath institute, and by cultural historians such as Fay Bound Alberti (Matters of the Heart), Heather Webb (The Medieval Hearts) and James Hillman (The Thought of the Heart)  suggest that the factual and fictive hearts are not actually separate… but are actually fundamentally intertwined.



The Long(er) Read: Delving more deeply into the interconnected factual and fictive.

Art Saint Augustine by Philippe De Champaigne
Philippe de Champaigne, 1645. LACMA Collection.



Part One. The fictive heart of today was once the factual heart of olde.

Cultural historian Fay Bound Alberti, in Matters of the Heart points us to the reality that:

“Images of the heart…that remain with us, such as ‘cold-hearted’, ‘warm hearted’…derive from Galenic principles. These concepts have lingered as (possibly self-reinforcing) metaphors where they once were taken as a series of bald medical facts.”  [2012: Page 4]

In this way, we can see how interwoven meanings of ‘the heart’ exist; due to us not being able to forget our past truths and so keeping hold of them in our literary, metaphorical, use of language.

Fay Bound Alberti Matters of the Heart

Even though this view of the heart was no longer considered factual- true- upon the advent of modern science, in particular in light of William Harvey’s discoveries of the heart as physically functioning like contemporary pumps and machinery, this reality lived on through being perpetuated in poetry.

Since the scientific severed all non-physical notions of the heart from the factual heart, all non-physical ideas coagulated into the fictive. The fictive heart became a repository for describing emotion, with the key quality of containing the gravitas of historical associations which gives weight and depth, creating the experience of significance and meaningfulness.


This perspective of how the factual and the fictive hearts reinforce each other was perhaps first elaborated upon in James Hillman’s 1979 Jungian lecture The Thought of the Heart (which was eventually published by Spring Publications). Based on its niche reception by academics, I am of the opinion that it is usually misunderstood and underestimated in equal measure. At any rate, it is one of my favourite pieces of writing about the heart. It’s the kind of work which takes a few reads and requires all the sections to fit together like puzzle pieces, whereby the result is bigger than the sum of the individual parts.

Hillman Book

Herein Hillman shares his idea that ‘the heart’ has been “held captive” by humanity’s fragmented, separable, concepts of the heart.

Personifying the concepts of heart into archetypal descriptors, Hillman reminds us that the idea of the heart our modern thoughtscape is most familiar with what he calls “The Heart of Harvey”- the heart as purely physical organ:

“Today, each of us carries the Harveyian heart in our breasts: my heart is a pump. It has thick muscular walls and needs exercise. If it fails, I put in a pacemaker or some bypass tubing. If it wears out, irreparable, I can let that heart doctor, named paradoxically enough, Christiaan Barnard, remove it and replace it with a spare.”


Harvey on Heart
William Harvey,  1628. Credit: Wellcome Collection (Online Archive).


Another familiar interpretation of ‘the heart’, the “Heart of Augustine & Rousseau,” was birthed in tandem with the Heart of Harvey, because it counterbalances the cultural turn towards the physical dimension of reality.

The Heart of Augustine describes the seat of inner feeling and authenticity. It is the “confessional mode” which began with Christian pew-box reflectiveness and morphed into the Psychoanalyst assisting the couch-askew individual. It is the revealing of discovered truths within the labyrinthine interiority of  the individual, increasingly relevant as the idea of unique personhood was increasingly taking root in society. 


Botticelli, 1480. Saint Augustine in His Study


“This heart of subjective feeling holds imagination in its captivity. 

…A gulf opens between subjective feelings without imaginative forms and the literalism of images as sensations, ideas, data without subjectivity.

…it requires rhetoric of the ego, the first person singular.

…what goes on in the heart is neither truth nor history; it is desire and imagination. So confession raises the problem that whenever we attempt to tell our feelings- what I really feel, what was my true motive- a certain duplicity starts up. Truth or Fiction? We waver at the very moment that we own up.

Confession supports one of our most cherished Western dogmas: the idea of a unified experiencing subject vis-a-vis a world that is multiple, disunited, chaotic. The first person singular, that little devil of an I- who, an psychoanalysis long ago has seen, is neither first, nor a person, nor singular- is the confessional voice, imagining itself to be the unifier of experience.”

[Hillman, 1979/2014: 26-29]


Additionally, according to Hillman, culturally we also inherit the archaic and esoteric “Coeur de Lion“. This is the folkloric, naively holistic heart, reminiscent of pre-Enlightenment era perceptions of the heart.  This is the warm heart of Galen which Fay Bound Alberti describes having been past bald truth, but is now just fiction.

Related image

“The heart of the lion is like the sun: round and full and whole.

The classical symbolisms of this heart are gold, king, redness, sol, sulfur, heat. It glows in the centre of our being and radiates outward, magnanimous, paternal, encouraging.

The thought of the lion warms so to life, is so in conformity with the world, that its thought is one with will, displaying itself in the world, enthroned as king, yellow as daylight, loud as roar, fixed as dogma. Thought presents itself as volition, as mood, or as love, vitality, or power, or imagination, and does not recognize itself as thought because it is not reflexive ratiocination, abstracted away from life, introspective.

Its thought does not appear as thought because it emanates like the sun into the world.”  [Hillman, 1979/2014: 13-14]

The Heart of the Lion is the way of being and perceiving before humanity adopted Logic.

Through being classified culturally as fictive, all allusions to the Heart of the Lion reinforce the dichotomy of the Heart of Harvey & the Heart of Augustine, the factual and the fictive. These can be considered two sides of the same coin; two realities that, together, compose a (more, but not completely) total picture of reality.

Spiral Soul

“History is psychology because tradition is always going on in the soul. The mechanical heart and the sentimental heart still imply each other, still require each other, and neither remembers the lion.”

– James Hillman


Part Two: The factual heart physically embodies qualities of the fictive heart.


Andrew Armour & the Institute of HeartMath (IHM) have utilised an interdisciplinary approach to exploring the heart.  Their theorising leads us to the idea -the reality among many co-existing, divergent, realities- that some of the fictive notions of the heart may actually be factual.  Individually and institutionally their neurocardiological theories have had much scrutiny; their ideas considered controversial and typically overlooked or dismissed. The basis of the opposition to incorporation into the mainstream, as I understand it, is due to the radically nuanced paradigm which their research and concepts necessitate, as well as the inherently uncertain nature of new and developing fields of knowledge making people slow to synthesise their content.



A summary of what the IHM assert, is that:

1.There are neural cells in the heart.

2.There is two-way communication between the brain and heart.

3. Some of the heart neural cells are just like neural cells in the brain, meaning that some heart cells would be able to store memories.

4. The neural cells in the heart and the adjoined parasympathetic nervous system make it so that the heart is sometimes the origin and initiator for emotions, which then influences the thoughts and feelings the brain biochemically generates.

These ideas are to a greater or lesser degree controversial.


Radical Implications

If the research done by the IHM & Armour is correct, then it would bring scientific credence to those who post- heart transplant, say they have additionally experienced a personality transfer.

“Stories of personality transfer post- heart transplant have been mythologised in popular consciousness.” [Fay Bound Alberti, Matters of the Heart, 2012: Page 2]

An example of those who report donor-mediated changes post heart transplant is the widely publicised case of Claire Sylvia, who was perplexed at developing a taste for KFC and green bell peppers, until she discovered that they were the favourite foods of her heart donor.  There are many such reports such as Sylvia’s, some which are more easy to rationalise away, some less easy.

Green pepper


I actually recall being told about the phenomena around the time of my own transplant as a child.  Full disclosure: Personally I am open to the phenomena being possible. But I would be hesitant about making any experiential claims myself.


And, if the IHM are correct, then this would shake the foundations of the 20th & 21st Century cultural truth that the brain is the main commander of the human body and self.  Since the truth of “brain-as-ruler” is integral to the notion of brain stem death being what defines true death and is necessary for legitimising heart transplantation legally and ethically en-masse, these ideas certainly would be paradigm-shifting, perhaps even problematic, for the heart transplant community.

Article that goes into the background historical context of Brain Death & Heart Transplantation:


What do the Institute of HeartMath officially claim?  & Are there any scientific studies that suggest it is worth considering their assertions?


“Traditionally, the study of communication pathways between the head and heart has been approached from a rather one-sided perspective, with scientists focusing primarily on the heart’s responses to the brain’s commands. We have learned, however, that communication between the heart and brain actually is a dynamic, ongoing, two-way dialogue, with each organ continuously influencing the other’s function.

Research has shown that the heart communicates to the brain in four major ways: neurologically (through the transmission of nerve impulses), biochemically (via hormones and neurotransmitters), biophysically (through pressure waves) and energetically (through electromagnetic field interactions).”


Sources: Chapter 1 of The Science of the Heart by HeartMath, accessible at

So far, so simple.

The IHM’s initial claims hark back to the basic scientific principle of Homeostasis (self-regulative biophysical feedback) combined with the sociological observation that our culture has a preference for reporting one movement of the homeostatic loop between heart and brain (the one from the brain to the heart) over the other (the movement from the heart to the brain).

[Source on Homeostasis: (Article explaining the history of Homeostasis as an idea and clearing up misunderstandings).]


What else does the IHM have to say?

“In terms of heart-brain communication, it is generally well-known that the efferent (descending) pathways in the autonomic nervous system are involved in the regulation of the heart. However, it is less appreciated that the majority of fibers in the vagus nerves are afferent (ascending) in nature. Furthermore, more of these ascending neural pathways are related to the heart (and cardiovascular system) than to any other organ. This means the heart sends more information to the brain than the brain sends to the heart. More recent research shows that the neural interactions between the heart and brain are more complex than previously thought. In addition, the intrinsic cardiac nervous system has both short-term and long-term memory functions and can operate independently of central neuronal command.”


These are some rather bold claims.

Can the evidence that the HMI gives be externally verified?

The IHM uses the proofs that:

“In 1974, French researchers stimulated the vagus nerve (which carries many of the signals from the heart to the brain) in cats and found that the brain’s electrical response was reduced to about half its normal rate.[1] This suggested that the heart and nervous system were not simply following the brain’s directions… Rather, the autonomic nervous system and the communication between the heart and brain were much more complex, and the heart seemed to have its own type of logic and acted independently of the signals sent from the brain.”

The French researchers in question were

  1. Gahery, Y. and D. VigierInhibitory effects in the cuneate nucleus produced by vago-aortic afferent fibers. Brain Research, 1974. 75: p. 241-246

After a bit of trouble, I eventually found the study is question published by the Elsivier journal via 

Unfortunately I was unable to access the article due to my University not having access to the science-based Elsevier journals. So my abilities to properly trace the veracity of the IHM’s evidence are somewhat limited. I do however have access to the official summary of the article however. It states that:

“Stimulation of vago-aortic nerve afferent fibers produces a diminution in the efficiency of synaptic transmission of somatic afferents in the cuneate nucleus in cats anesthetized with chloralose.

The inhibition is accompanied by an increase in the amplitude of the antidromic wave recorded in the superficial radial nerve, thus indicating that the inhibitory effects caused by vago-aortic nerve stimulation seem to be of a presynaptic origin.”

My perhaps over-certain translation of this medical speak is that the IHM have done their research: by impacting the neurons of mammalian hearts it majorly impacts brain function and the origins of some brain functions are in the organ of the heart.

The claim of neural cells in the brain containing memories is trickier to verify.

Let us seek out the work of the main proponent of this idea.  Although Andrew Armour’s scientific credibility has been questioned by those skeptical of his interpretation of the heart as an additional seat of intelligence and memory to the brain, nevertheless, it is possible to find peer reviewed studies verifying his research.

The NCBI, the National Centre for Biotechnology Information, an offshoot of the US National Library of Medicine, published an article in 2016 which was co-authored by Andrew Armour. It enumerates and quantifies the value of neurocardiology for cardiovascular therapeutics:

It’s an article densely packed with specialist terminology and requires a medical dictionary or two to decipher.

Here are some of the key remarks [plus my translation of the most vexing findings]:

“To understand the relevance of the cardiac nervous system in the evolution of cardiac disease (Armour, 2008; Kember et al2013 b; Florea & Cohn, 2014; Fukuda et al2015), one must appreciate the anatomical foundations of its functional organization for cardiac control.

As a corollary, to develop targeted neuromodulation therapies to treat specific cardiac pathologies, one must comprehend the anatomical basis of neuraxial [central nervous system] coordination of regional cardiac function (Buckley et al2016). Targeted neuromodulatory therapies have been recently devised for sustained treatment of cardiac arrhythmias as well as heart failure.

With respect to the entire cardiac neuraxis [nervous system], focusing at the level of the heart, human intrinsic cardiac ganglia are known to contain a complex neural network involving different neuronal anatomical subtypes that include unipolar neurons (putative afferent neurons), along with cholinergic [relating to muscular function] and adrenergic [pertaining to release of adrenaline and dopamine] neurons that presumably represent the two major motor phenotypes [outward expressions] (Hoover et al2009; Pauza et al2014).

Intrinsic cardiac ganglia [cluster of cells; tissue] also possess relatively large diameter neuronal somata that form clusters of rosettes within single ganglia. These somata frequently project axons centrally to interconnect primarily with dendrites of similar somata [bodies] within that ganglion [tissues], an anatomical arrangement that forms an anatomical substrate for somatal interactions within or among adjacent intrinsic cardiac ganglia, which are second order neuronal [specialized nerve cells; usually only located in brain stem and spinal cord] interactions.

Based on this anatomy, intrinsic cardiac ganglionated plexus neurons may function not only as an efferent neuronal relay station under medullary [soft and spinal cord (adrenergic) motor control, but also as an important element in cardiocentric local reflex control (Armour, 2004).

Most cardiac afferent neurons in intrinsic cardiac ganglia also display multimodal transduction [meaning-interpretation-dependant communication] properties.”

This essentially is a very long way of saying that there are a few types of neurons in the heart, and it’s clear that some impact functionality in terms of movement (the heart does need to move to pump blood, after all) and other neurons, which send messages from the heart to the brain, are more complex and could have a variety of functions.

….Here you have it. The scientific paper translated: the jury is still open, the case isn’t closed. The HeartMath Institute may be on the something.

The Hard problem of how the human Mind & Body interrelate 

The scientific question of knowing or proving whether a cardiac neural cell does or doesn’t contain memories is at least partly philosophical. This is because the gap between ‘mind’ and ‘body’, memory and physical encoding, is still somewhat of a mystery, much more with humanity than with machines such as computers. Also, a lot is at stake in terms of biotechnological political agendas and cultural perceptions of what it means to be human. When you begin to throw ideas such as non-local quantum memory storage theories into this interdisciplinary ideas soup, it is easy to see why separate disciplines were decided upon for the sake of making sense of at least one corner of reality.

Embracing interconnection

“The heart draws strength from  the circulation of human relationships… A Swedish study of cardiac patients showed that those without a social network had three times the ten-year mortality rate of those who were socially integrated”

-Heather Webb, in The Medieval Heart (2010: Page 185).

Realities ascribed to the fictive qualities of the heart such as love, connection and courage and the lack of these (now qualities we now ascribe to the brain) have been scientifically researched and verified as positively determining the functioning of the physical heart.  Likewise, feeling states of heartbreak, loneliness and isolation aren’t just perceived via the nervous system, in the cardiac plexus- they also alter and shape the physical heart itself, and are statistically detrimental for heart health.


Links to some of many Sources:

Loneliness, social isolation and Cardiovascular health‘ (2018) by Ning Xia & Huige Li.

“Broken Heart Syndrome”, the nickname for Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy, that has been known to frequently develop shortly after the loss of a loved one, has, along with The American Heart Association, also been verified by Harvard’s Medical Site  and the NHS along with many other authorities and by many other researchers.

Image result for heart math imagery

An insight from this elaboration upon the interconnection of the factual and the fictive hearts that emerges is that when interconnection emerges as a higher truth over separability, then in all areas that exist connection creates health and separation leads to disease.

Heart transplant teams are perhaps (inadvertently) already ahead of the curve in requiring transplants to have a support system in place as part of their criteria of eligibility to be added to the transplant waiting list. While the motivation for this is the necessity for physical and financial support during the recovery, the added reason of the social element improving heart health and overall transplant outcomes is compelling.

However, as we all know to varying degrees, having people nearby is no guarantee for heart-healthy experience of connection. Resolving social isolation doesn’t immediately ameliorate loneliness; hence the saying, that sometimes we can feel most lonely in a crowd.

Therefore, perhaps transplant teams and cardiologists ought to bridge disciplines and begin prescribing ‘connection’ with others. And not just see their treatment options solely in physical pharmacological supplements such as immunosuppressants, statins and beta-blockers.

Indeed, Dr Sandeep Jauhur, who researched, wrote and personally experienced the interconnection between emotion and heart health, asserts that even though “the iterative technological advances will continue…. the big frontier is going to be in marshaling more resources to address the intersection of the emotional heart and the biological heart”.



Lastly, the theme of integrating separate parts and moving towards a state of wholeness, as embodied by the painting below (by artist Teal Swan) is a fitting summation of the idea of how the multiple meanings of ‘heart’ are ultimately interconnected.

Integration .JPG