The Little Brain in the Heart
Updated: Mar 31, 2022
By Lauren Buys
“If the 20th century has been the Century of the Brain, then the 21st century should be the Century of the Heart.”
Gary E. R Schwartz, Ph.D.
For just a moment, will you indulge me? Before skimming past these words, will you take your hand and rest it on the space where your heart resides? Can you hold it there, gently pressed against your chest? Maybe you could indulge me a little further even and slow down your breath, make it deeper, make it fuller, for just a moment stay with yourself. And maybe there you feel it, a gentle wash of oxytocin, the love hormone, the trust hormone, your heart thanking you for your attention. Your heart; the most powerful bioelectrical and bio-magnetic generator in your body, one hundred times stronger than your brain electrically and five thousand times stronger magnetically. Along for every second of the ever-quickening journey that is your life, your heart will work relentlessly for you, never stopping for a break. It will expand and contract about one hundred thousand times a day while pumping two thousand gallons of blood through your circulatory system over that same time period. This vital organ, shielded by the architectural palace that is your ribcage, has been largely silenced by the intellect of your egoic mind. Left in its chambers while you take up residence in the pain of the past or sojourn in the fear of the future, it carries on and on and on in the now of each moment. And there it stays, ever present, loyally serving you for an entire lifetime.
Many ancient traditions and cultures viewed the heart as the primary seat of consciousness, the dwelling place of the soul, the key to accessing our inner wisdom. Ancient Egyptians believed that it was the heart, not the brain, that was the source of insight and memories. During the process of mummification, the heart was left in the body to ensure eternal life for the departed soul, while the brain was removed and disposed of. Ancient Greek physicians took on this idea too and reasoned that the heart supplied the entire human form with heat, controlled reason, and emotions. Aristotle identified the heart as the most important organ of the body, our very center of vitality. If today you were to Google the heart, you’d learn what most of us have been taught from a very young age- that its primary purpose is to pump blood throughout the body. In 1932, J. L Bremer, a researcher at Harvard Medical School conducted a study that would come to challenge the idea that the heart’s main function is that of a pump. Bremer showed his students a film that he’d made documenting the blood moving through the embryo of a chick. What was of interest to his research was the fact that the heart of the embryonic chick had not yet been developed though the blood was already moving throughout its body. Since there was no heart to pump the blood, how was the blood able to move? The Japanese scientist Masaru Emoto wrote in his book The Hidden Messages in Water that water in a stream remains pure because of its movement. When water becomes stagnant, it dies, therefore it must be in a constant state of circulation. The blood in the body of an ill person is usually stagnant. Fluid in its natural state is a substance that wants to move. The heart is a powerful and necessary pump but blood in the body will move of its own volition through micro vortices, minute spirals of motion. So, if blood has the ability to move without the assistance of the heart, could the primary purpose of the heart be more than just that of a pump? In 1991 a group of scientists headed by Dr Armour discovered over forty thousand specialized neurons in the heart. This intrinsic cardiac nervous system would come to be known as the “heart brain” or “little brain in the heart” and is composed of neurons akin to those in the brain. This sensory network of neurons in the heart are able to think, learn, remember, feel, and sense completely independently of the cranial brain. What this research was able to suggest is that we have a form of intelligence focused in the heart that can function completely separately from the brain. Additionally, the heart communicates with and sends more information to the brain than the brain does to the heart.
Now that we know that there are neurons residing in the heart that think, feel, sense, and remember independently of the brain, we come to realize what the theory of cellular memories tells us- that memories are not only stored in the brain but are also stored in our organs. This would account for the plethora of examples studying the cases of memory transference in organ transplant recipients. One such case was that of an eight-year-old girl who received the heart of a girl two years her senior. Immediately following her surgery, the donor recipient began to have vivid nightmares of a man chasing and murdering her. These disturbing, recurring dreams sent her to a psychiatrist who believed that the images were real memories and contacted the police. The young girl’s shockingly specific descriptions of the event, including the time, place, weapon used, and clothes worn were all completely accurate reports that assisted the police in finding and capturing the man who admitted to murdering the organ donor. Certainly, a hard to believe concept for many, this is just one example out of hundreds explaining the possibility that we hold more in our hearts and organs than we might previously have known. The chemical equivalent of every experience, every emotion is called a neuropeptide. These neuropeptides can be metabolized out of our body when we allow ourselves to release an experience or emotion, alternatively they can become stuck in the tissues and organs of the body if we don’t allow them to move through us. When we experience joy or elation, we don’t typically find ourselves ‘stuck’ with the feeling for long periods of time- our willingness to experience the emotion is what allows it to move through us and metabolize out of us. However, when it comes to trauma, anger, our deepest hurts, our most poignant failures, and the apprehension we have towards experiencing these feelings, the neuropeptides associated with these emotions and events become anchored in the organs and are not able to be metabolized. Oftentimes, the neuropeptides associated with profound hurt and sorrow will reside in the heart. We are taught to think about and resolve our trauma with the use of our brain- a polarity organ with left and right hemispheres. When we contemplate our anguish, our sufferings through the use of our brain, there will always be polarity- a right and a wrong, a good and a bad, success and failure. The heart, on the other hand, is not a polarity organ. When we give consideration to the more negative experiences that have happened to us or by us through the intelligence of the heart, the access of these memories becomes more objective than subjective. Rather than feeling the guilt, anger, hurt, and shame of our past traumas that keep us from releasing the neuropeptides associated with them, experiencing them through the nonpolar balance of the heart will give them new meaning. We can’t change what has happened to us, but we can change the way we feel about what has happened to us.
Research done at the Institute of Heart Math has shown that one of the most powerful factors in effecting our heart’s changing rhythm is our feelings and emotions. The emotions that we experience directly affect our heart rhythm pattern. Feelings of stress, fear, confusion and anxiety cause the heart rhythm pattern to become incoherent, chaotic, erratic. While feelings of joy, appreciation, compassion, and love cause our heart rhythm pattern to become harmonious and synchronized. Why do we care about our heart rhythm pattern? When this pattern is disordered, caused by negative emotions or experiences, the corresponding pattern of neural signals that travel from the heart to the brain begin to inhibit higher cognitive functions- prohibiting our ability to learn, reason, and think clearly. On the contrary, during positive emotional states, the opposite effect occurs. The orderly, stable pattern of the heart’s input to the brain promotes cognitive function and reinforces emotional stability. These heart signals have a significantly positive effect on memory, perception, attention and problem solving and allow all systems of the body to function in a more harmonious manner. A healthy relationship to emotions facilitates a healthier brain and body- also known as psychophysiological coherence.
Let’s return to what I mentioned in my introductory paragraph- that the heart is the strongest bioelectrical and bio-magnetic generator in the body. These two fields are what make up the reality that we exist in- electrical and magnetic. The electromagnetic field that the heart produces is measurable and is formed 360 degrees around our physical body. It projects on average, four to five feet from our core and can expand and contract. We encode and imprint this field with our emotions- what we feel is being broadcast through that field. Forget about wearing your heart on your sleeve- you don’t need clothing in order to emanate your feelings, you’re already dressed in them. Think of the tension you feel when you walk into a room poised with two lovers in the midst of a quarrel, or the electric jubilation of an arena filled with spectators of the winning team. Whether you realize it or not, you’re feeling the emotional broadcasts of others through their electromagnetic fields, and they are feeling yours.
Scientist and bestselling author Gregg Braden speaks on the importance of heart-brain coherence in many of his works. He believes that in harmonizing the heart and the brain we can open the door to powerful states of super memory, super recall, and intuition on demand. Rollin McCraty, Ph.D., a founder of the Institute of Heart Math, says that the greatest source of stress on the planet is the disorganization of the heart and mind, causing a lack of resonance. He goes on to state that this lack of attunement between the heart and brain is detrimental to humanity’s vitality and happiness. There are recommended activities from the Institute of Heart Math for harmonizing the heart and the brain. A simple three step process would be to firstly shift your awareness into your heart space either by tapping gently in the area or by resting your hand on your heart. The second part of the simple equation is to slow down and lengthen your breath, and the third part is to feel and think about something that genuinely brings you gratitude, compassion, caring or appreciation. The key to success here is for your feeling to be as heartfelt and sincere as possible- it’s the quality of this feeling that optimizes the coherence between your heart and your brain.
Incorporating this straightforward equation into my daily practice has brought a sense of trust into my life that I hadn’t quite experienced before. A soothing relationship with an organ that I’d previously paid little attention to. Prior to writing this essay, the eighteen-inch trip from my head to the center of my chest seemed like a cross country marathon. I’d spent much of my adult life living in the neural passageways of my brain and very little time perusing the chamber rooms of my heart. More recently, that cross country marathon seems like an easy slip into a warm moment of neutral bliss. The heart wants to communicate with us, we just need to invite it to.
Above every charge keep your heart, for out of it are the outgoings of life. Guard your heart above all else, for it is the source of life.