In different belief systems and cultures, the heart is associated with deep meanings. Despite this history, modern medicine has restricted the heart to its physiological structure and brought forward the brain as the source of all reasoning, thoughts, and emotions. Is the heart merely an organ that resembles a pine cone and serves us by pumping blood? A recent study by Dr. Armour and Dr. McCraty revealed that the heart has many more splendid functions aside from just pumping blood.
This study is a part of the burgeoning field of neuro-cardiology. It began when Armour and Ardell discovered a web of neurons in the heart. This web is described as being like a small scale brain, and it is endowed with functions like learning, data processing, remembering, and cognition – and it performs these independent of the central nervous system. These neuron cells in the heart both maintain communication with the brain and regulate the heart’s functions. Thus, a two-sided information transfer between the heart and brain is realized. In 2010, research conducted in different centers demonstrated that more information is sent from the heart to the brain, than vice versa.
Specific findings (McCraty, 2002, 2010; Haspel, 2009) have drawn particular attention to the relationship between the heart and brain, and they reveal that the heart communicates with the brain in four different ways:
1. Neurons (the neurological way)
2. Hormones and neurotransmitters (the biochemical way)
3. The pulse waves produced by blood pressure (the biophysical way).
4. The mutual transaction of electromagnetic fields.
The heart’s two-sided communication network with the brain and other bodily systems is one of the most complex communication systems known to humankind. While the brain has abstract, analytical, and logical intellects as well as functions like thought processing, data storing, and remembering, the heart is endowed with the intellects of feeling and communication. It is the center where feelings are first produced, and these emotions are then conveyed by the limbic system. In addition, the brain’s response to these emotions not only impacts all cells, but also the heart and brain waves of other people in the same vicinity.
Each heartbeat pumps blood, but it also sends and receives data to and from the entire body via neurological, hormonal, and electromagnetic means.
The same research from 2010 showed though the heart is the root of these functions, it also has functions relating to judgment, decision making, data-processing and remembering, just like the brain. The science of neuro-cardiology seems likely to radically change how we perceive the human body and soul.
The beating heart’s influence on our lives
The time that passes between heart beats is described as “heart rate variability.” Heart rate variability (HRV) reflects whether electric signals by the sinoatrial node (a group of nerve cells responsible for the electric current in the heart) is healthy or not. As HRV measures the heart’s ability to respond to the signals coming from and going to the brain, understanding the variability ratios of the heart has gained importance in recent years.
HRV is not always constant. The research conducted by Thurber et al (2010) studied HRV’s influence on a person’s mood, and it yielded interesting findings. According to their study, if HRV is consistent, all the body’s systems are positively influenced, or negatively if the HRV is inconsistent.
Depending on the emotional state of the individual, the heart influences the brain stem, amygdala, and cortex via the data it sends by means of heart rate variability. All of these findings indicate that the heart is not only given the duty of pumping blood, but also of being an administrative signal center that regulates the entire operation of the body in rhythm. When individuals experience different emotions like rage, joy, fear, or despair, the rhythmic patterns in HRV also differ.
For example, if a person is experiencing positive feelings like gratitude, appreciation, love, or mercy, the heart rate variability is consistent; but if the person is experiencing negative feeling such as fear, anxiety, despair, depression, or the like, the HRV becomes inconsistent. In addition, if the person is experiencing positive feelings, the heart perceives other positive feelings with more ease; and if not, the perception of such feelings becomes more difficult. Thankfully, the research conducted by McCraty et al (2009) and Halpel indicated that it is possible to intentionally evoke positive feelings in a person. External factors play a major role in our moods.
The electromagnetic field of the heart and its influence on our lives
The human heart is a reactor where the strongest and widest electromagnetic field in the body is produced. The bio-electromagnetic field produced in the heart has been measured to be 50-70 cm wide by magnetometers with a base of superconducting quantum interference device (SQUID). According to McCraty’s measurements of the heart’s electric field, which can be measured with an electrocardiogram (EKG), it is, on average, 100 times greater than the electroencephalogram (EEG) recorded in the brain – and the magnetic component is an average of 5,000 times stronger than the one produced in the brain.
The changes in blood pressure, sound pressure, and electromagnetic waves – all of which are produced by the rhythmic activity of the heart – are perceived by every organ and cell in the body. For instance, electromagnetic waves sent from the heart affect brain waves. Recent research by Haspel as well as Bedell and Kaszkin-Bettag suggest that the heart is where emotional states originate – the brain is simply sensing these feelings.
For instance, when the heart rate variability is 0.10 hertz, there is complete harmony between our body and spirit. In this state of harmony, it was observed that the waves from the two lobes of the brain are in the same phase and they turn into a single wave. In other words, the two lobes of the brain begin to work in perfect harmony. In addition, it was observed that at this state the brain secretes a serious amount of endorphins, which are the source of the feeling of pleasure.
Science is beginning to show that if the waves formed by HRV and brain waves are harmonious, a person will be physically and psychologically healthy. If the two sets of waves are not harmonious, the person is likely to be ill. This indicates that the changes observed in pulse patterns over time are a key measure of the balance between the brain and heart.
At the same time, this balance varies according to our mood. Attaining harmony only happens only when we experience feelings such as compassion, love, affection, appreciation, forgiveness, and thankfulness (Thurber et al, 2010; McCraty and Reese, 2009). A great deal of this harmony is realized through electromagnetic communication, which also strengthens our senses, concentration, and ability to generate new ideas. And physically, our immune system is strengthened, stress is reduced, and we are overall healthier. The equation is simple: good moods equal good health.
In addition to all of these benefits, a 2002 study by McCraty showed that a magnetic area of influence that surrounds the body is formed with every beat of the heart (figure 2). While the heart influences the functioning of our bodily systems with the data it sends to all cells and to the brain, it also influences other people’s hearts and brainwaves by sending out external data. In many instances, we witness that being close to certain people may both influence our heart (feelings) and brain (thoughts and decision making processes). This explains how parents and educators who constantly share the same environment with children can have a great impact in their lives. For this reason, all people, but particularly parents and teachers, must be very careful about what passes from their heart. It is ultimately our body’s functions turned into external action that have the greatest influence on those around us.
The following statements from the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, summarizes this issue well:
“God does not look at your bodies nor your forms, but He looks at your hearts and your actions.”
“There is lump of flesh in the body, the nature of which is that when it is sound, the entire body is sound, and when it is corrupt, the entire body is corrupt—it is the heart.”
It’s time we learned that the heart doesn’t just exist to pump blood: it has a role in shaping our emotions – and the emotions of others.
In human heart, there are 40.000 nerve cells similar to those in the nervous system but work independently from the central system. Here are a few microscopic views:
This view shows the reciprocal connections between the neural nodes in human heart. The light blue and fine structures seen in the picture on the left are the bodies of so many nerve cells that connect nerve nodes to one another and thus maintain the flow.
The second view shows groups of nerve cells whose nerve nodes (ganglia) are out of the brain and in the spinal cord. Each of the round looking smaller structures is the body of a single nerve cell.
The third view is the section of a nerve node from the inside of the heart. In the center there are clusters formed by the extensions of nerve cells that connect each nerve cell to one another. This is an ideal structure for every unit of nervous processing.
The first view is one taken through a confocal microscope. It is the view of transmitting nerve cells located inside the heart and convey stimuli to the central nervous system. These sensory neurons detect the mechanical and biochemical changes that locally take place in the heart tissue. Then they send this data to the rest of the nervous system, and generally to the heart.