A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why is the heart considered the center of love and affection?

February 16, 1996

Dear Cecil:

I've got a question I hope you can answer quickly. Why is it that we associate the heart (the organ) with love, affection, relationships? I'm a writer at an ad agency and I'm working on a Valentine's Day card project.

Dear Paul:

Damn, late again. Did you have a plan B or are you now on the suppository account?

Folks around the world have regarded the heart as the seat of the soul and the center of the emotions since ancient times. Even the most primitive peoples surely noticed that the heart pounded during times of stress, whether from chasing game or pining for a beloved, and they also saw that if you took a spear through it you died. It was only natural to conclude that the heart was the home base of courage, love, the life essence, and other good stuff. The Bible says, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul," and similar thoughts can be found in the sacred writings of many religions.

By the 16th century BC the Egyptians had noticed that the heart was at the center of a network of blood vessels (actually they thought the little tubes were blood-spit-semen-and-urine vessels, apparently never having investigated too closely), and no doubt this reinforced the source-of-life-and-being concept. Exactly what the heart did in connection with blood circulation remained unclear until the publication of William Harvey's work in 1628, but people have always known it was important.

The real mystery is why the heart got all the glory and not the brain. Today most of us have the sense that our inner being lives behind our eyeballs, and while this is partly because we have the benefit of medical knowledge, given the concentration of sense organs in your head it's hard to understand how anybody could imagine that consciousness resided somewhere else. But some did. The ancient Egyptians thought the center of the intellect, memory, wisdom, and so on was the heart. They attached no special importance to the brain and thought of it mainly as the source of mucus. (Maybe they spent a lot of time vacationing in the Ozarks.) Likewise some Taoist writings seem to equate heart and mind.

Luckily the Greeks got things straightened out. The philosopher and physiologist Alcmaeon, a student of Pythagoras who lived around 500 BC, declared that the brain was the center of the intellect, and mainstream Western thinkers generally followed his lead. Not that anybody forgot about the heart. Instead, the familiar head-heart dichotomy developed, with the former being the intellectual HQ and the latter the home of the emotions and physical virtues such as bravery and endurance.

The idea of the heart as the center of one's being retained its punch surprisingly late in the day. I'm reminded of Catholic veneration of the Sacred Heart of Jesus--and I don't mean metaphorical heart. I mean one with Sacred Atriums and Sacred Ventricles, and I could swear as a kid in parochial school I saw one with a Sacred Aorta. The deluxe model came wrapped in a crown of thorns with drops of blood. Mrs. Adams wonders why I like horror movies. Babe, says I, the nuns started me young.

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