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Heart vs. Brain

The epic battle Heart versus Brain - has been waging long before The Awkward Yeti made it funny and relatable.

The cardiocentric approach - that the heart is the ruler of all - comes from Egyptian mythology (3100 B.C.E. - 332 B.C.E.) and was reinforced by the Greek dissections of Aristotle (lived 384-322 B.C.E.).

According to Egyptian beliefs the fate of the soul after death was determined by Anubis - the god of mummification - who would weigh the deceased person's heart against a feather. Any heavy hearts would be considered guilty and consumed by Ammit. Only those light enough to pass the test were permitted to enter paradise. This is why the heart was kept in the body while other organs removed.

In Aristotle's experiments he noticed that some animals with less complex systems than humans could move and feel without their brains. Therefore, he concluded that the brain couldn't be responsible for movement or feeling. He also observed that the heart was the origin of the veins in the body, and concluded that the heart was the ONE organ to rule them all. Aristotle even went as far as to postulate that the brain was designed as an apparatus for overheated blood - with no other discernible functions.

Hippocrates ​​(460-379 B.C.E.) is often credited as the first neuroscientist - and the beginning of the cephalocentric approach. He was one of the first to state that the brain is involved in sensation and is the seat of intelligence. His ideas were catapulted into modern society by Claudius Galen - who also falsely believed that the human brain had three ventricles, with each being responsible for a different function (imagination, reason and memory) and likened it's mechanism to that of a machine. His influence was so great that it would takes many years to refute this false belief.

A few other monumental moments in brain science history:

  • 1664 Thomas Willis publishes “Anatomy of the Brain,” which uses the term neurology for the first time

  • 1837 J. E. Purkinje is the first man to describe a neuron

  • 1878 William McEwen performs the first successful modern neurosurgery

  • 1929 Hans Berger invents the EEG (electroencephalography)

  • 1973 Candace Pert discovers opiate receptors in the brain*

  • 1974 A mouse is the subject of the first nuclear magnetic resonance (NMRI) scan

  • 1974 The first Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scanner is invented, providing visual information about brain activity

  • 1987 Prozac is introduced

  • 1992 Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is first used to map activity in the human brain

*Candace Pert is usually absent from many lists and timelines and I deliberately include her here. She discovered the opiate receptors in the brain as a grad student but was left off the Nobel Prize award - instead her male teacher and counterparts were nominated (Similar to Rosalind Franklin with Watson and Crick's credited discovery of the double-helix shape of DNA). Read about her story and place in modern neuoroscience in "Molecules of Emotion".

It's only been in more recent times that research has switched back to the heart with organizations like HeartMath Institute bringing the importance of the heart back to the conversation.

I went deep down the rabbit hole of thought/googling and am only scratching the surface of the Heart versus Brain debate, its stories and complexities.

My general observation is that the Heart-centered approach seems to still be relevant in cultures that are still rooted in traditions and not influenced by modern thinking and science. The Brain-centered approach appears to be more rooted in the patriarchy and capitalism. Often, these two energies are categorized as separate: masculine versus feminine - and may be used to defend outdated ideas around binary gender roles. Instead, an integrated awareness understands that these 2 energies are opposite ends of a spectrum; and we all embody them in different ways - similar to Yang and Yin; masculine and feminine, respectively OR action and receiving OR sun and moon. And we are constantly in motion between the two ends - sliding the scale back and forth as the elements shift or life happens or as we unravel deeper (and often less constricted) understandings of ourselves.

And now to what has sparked this investigation: 2 different translations of a common Yoga Sutra:

1.2 Yogaschitta vrtti nirdodhah

"Yoga is the uniting of the consciousness in the heart."

"Complete mastery over the roaming tendencies of the mind is Yoga."

The translation by Nischala Devi Joy is a new one for my personal collection and I am already making space for this version to take the spotlight for potentially being my new favorite. Sorry Pandit Rajmani Tigunait - you held that space for quite some time and I still love ya!

There’s something refreshing about this cis-female approach, a little magic added back in to places that the more patriarchal approach may have striped it. My heart received this teaching in the most beautiful way.

We need more folks, more hearts, more brains, more opinions of integration and translations of these well-quoted works.

Maybe it's the tenderness of my current state or the softness that comes with age and understanding - but the moon has been calling me.

I've spent much of my life in the sun, and it's mostly served me well.

And now I hear the moon calling me.

And it's not just to swing to the opposite of the spectrum.

It's a calling for a more integrated version of myself, more understanding, more compassion - more Grace!

Some research articles for further contemplation on science's search for the soul:

Dolan B. Soul Searching: a brief history of the mind/body debate in the neurosciences. Neurosurg Focus. 2007;23(1):E2. doi: 10.3171/foc.2007.23.1.2. PMID: 17961052.

Santoro G, Wood MD, Merlo L, Anastasi GP, Tomasello F, Germanò A. The anatomic location of the soul from the heart, through the brain, to the whole body, and beyond: a journey through Western history, science, and philosophy. Neurosurgery. 2009 Oct;65(4):633-43; discussion 643. doi: 10.1227/01.NEU.0000349750.22332.6A. PMID: 19834368.

Smith CU. Cardiocentric neurophysiology: the persistence of a delusion. J Hist Neurosci. 2013;22(1):6-13. doi: 10.1080/0964704X.2011.650899. PMID: 23323528.


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