We make many associations with our hearts in our everyday lives; we view it as the source of emotion, love, wisdom, and courage. However, we usually restrict these lofty descriptions to our day-to-day conversations; scientifically speaking, most of these inner qualities have been attributed to the brain, the most complex organ of our body. Thus, the heart has been studied mostly as a mechanical organ that carries out the commands of the brain, responsible for pumping blood through our circulatory system, oxygenating our tissues, and removing their waste products.
However, research in the past few decades suggests that even physiologically, the heart is far more than just a pump. The Institute of HeartMath in Boulder Creek, California studies the heart and has gained insight into the various brain-like attributes that it has been found to possess. These attributes form the “little brain” in the heart, and this theory opens the door to the new and exciting topic of heart intelligence .
In the past, researchers have primarily focused on how the heart responds to brain commands. However, research now reveals that the heart has very significant effects on the brain that have been overlooked previously. This is the field of neurocardiology, which studies how the heart and the brain collaborate. John and Beatrice Lacey pioneered this field of research in the 1970s; they discovered that, in contrast to preexisting theories, there is two-way communication between the heart and the brain . Much of this research reveals new information about the heart, proving that even scientifically, the heart is a special and unique organ—rather than merely a pump following the commands of the brain.
The “little brain” in the heart is the heart’s own intrinsic nervous system—a network of neurons, neurotransmitters, proteins, and support cells that are very similar to those that exist in the brain, but act independently of the brain . This information processing system can control the brain, the hormonal system, and other pathways. By using this system, the heart seems to have its own logic that functions separately from the autonomic nervous system. In fact, at times, brain “rhythms” — neural oscillations or repetitive neural activity — naturally synchronize to heart electromagnetic rhythms and heartbeat . These findings have shed light on scientific explanations to feelings such as intuition, coherence, and harmony.
The Institute of HeartMath has found that heart rhythms, particularly our heart rate variability, are reflective of our emotional states. They can signal whether we are in moments of high stress or at points of harmony. These emotional changes can also be seen through changes in our blood pressure, respiration, and digestion. While negative emotions have physiological consequences that can be seen in irregular heart rhythms, positive emotions result in normal heart rhythms and a visibly more harmonious functioning of the nervous system [2 ].
This “little brain” also explains why heart transplants work: although a transplanted heart won’t maintain all of the connections it once had with the brain, it is still functional in its new environment. The heart usually communicates with the brain through nerve fibers that run through the vagus nerve and the spinal column. When a heart has been transplanted, these connections do not immediately form again, but the heart may still able to function because of the existence of its own intrinsic nervous system .
The heart also communicates information to the brain via electromagnetic forces. In fact, the heart is fifty times more powerful than the brain electrically, and five thousand times more powerful magnetically . The magnitude of this strength is such that the heart’s magnetic component can be sensed several feet away from the body . Heart fields can also supposedly interact between several individuals, taking social communication to a level beyond language, gestures, facial expressions, and body movements, thereby directly affecting our everyday social encounters .
The science behind neurocardiology is multidisciplinary, deriving from fields such as mathematics, physics, psychology, signal processing, physiology, neurology, and cardiology. The heart has the potential to produce harmony and order throughout the entire body, and has scientifically been found to foster positive changes in gene expression, biochemistry, and self-healing. This research promises a myriad of future applications; it has helped develop ways we can use heart intelligence to live with less stress and anxiety. It has also provided insight into many therapies that can help restore calmness and harmony to the body. By enlightening us on the true connection between the heart and brain, research in neurocardiology can help us strive for more coherent, heart-based lives.
1. McCraty, Rollin; Bradley, Raymond Trevor; Tomasino, Dana. “Hearts Have Their Own Brain and Consciousness.” Available from http://wakeup-world.com/2012/02/29/hearts-have-their-own-brain-and-consciousness/
2. Salem, Mohamed Omar. “The Heart, Mind and Spirit.” Available from http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/pdf/Heart,%20Mind%20and%20Spirit%20%20Mohamed%20Salem.pdf
3. Templin, Steven. “Neurocardiology: Your Heart Has a Brain.” Available from http://www.newmedicalmodel.com/neurocardiology-your-heart-has-a-brain/
4. The Institute of HeartMath. “Science of The Heart: Exploring the Role of the Heart in Human Performance.” Available from http://www.heartmath.org/research/science-of-the-heart/introduction.html?submenuheader=3
Image Credit (Creative Commons): Gayle Laird, 2012. “After Death: Heartworks.” Flickr, accessed June 19, 2014.
Srividya Murthy is a sophomore at George Washington University studying biophysics.