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Dan Thompson, January 2010

The Heart

Most of us have been taught that the heart is a 10 ounce muscle that pumps blood and maintains circulation until we die. When something goes wrong, you consult a technician (doctor) to repair it. In the worst case, you might be able to replace the pump with someone else’s heart.
The heart starts beating in an unborn fetus before the brain is formed. Scientists don’t know what triggers the beating, but they use the word “auto-rhythmic” to indicate that the heartbeat is self-initiated from within the heart.

As the brain begins to develop, it grows from the bottom up. Starting from the most primitive part of the brain (the brainstem), then the emotional centres (the amygdala and the hippocampus) begin to emerge. Brain researchers state that the brain then grows out of the emotional regions and I think that speaks volumes about the relationship between thought and feeling.

The source of a heartbeat is within the heart; however, the timing was thought to be controlled by the brain through the autonomic nervous system. But surprisingly enough, the heart doesn’t need to be hardwired to a brain to keep beating. For example, when someone has a heart transplant, the nerves that run from the brain to the heart are severed and thus far, surgeons don’t know how to reconnect them; however, that does not stop the heart from functioning. After the implant and after the beat had been restored within the new person’s chest, the heart keeps beating, though there’s no longer any connection to the brain. Having said that, the heart is also a much interconnected organ, as its electrical conduction system is regulated by a combination of body systems including the central nervous system, brain, adrenal glands, and blood chemistry which plays a huge part in heart function, liver, kidney and lungs.

In recent years, neuroscientists have made exciting discoveries. They’ve found that the heart has its own independent nervous system. There are at least 40,000 neurons in the heart and the same amount is found in various subcortical centres within the brain. The heart’s intrinsic brain and nervous system relay information back to the brain in the cranium, creating a two-way communication system between the heart and the brain. Signals sent from the heart to the brain affect many areas and functions in the amygdala, the thalamus and the cortex.

The discovery that the heart has its own nervous system, “a brain”, that affects the amygdala, the thalamus and the cortex, helps explain what psychologists John and Beatrice Lacey of the Fels Research Institute realized during the 1970s. At that time, it was known that the body’s nervous system connected the heart with the brain, but scientists presumed that the brain made all the decisions. The Lacey’s found that when the brain sent “orders” to the heart through the nervous system, the heart didn’t automatically obey. Instead, the heart responded as if it had its own distinctive logic. Sometimes when the brain sent an arousal signal to the body in response to stimuli, the heartbeat sped up accordingly. But frequently it actually slowed down while other organs responded with arousal. The selectivity of the heart’s response indicated that it wasn’t merely mechanically responding to a signal from the brain. Rather, the heart’s response appeared to depend on the nature of the particular task and the type of mental processing it required.

The Lacey’s discovered that the heart appeared to send messages back to the brain and it not only understood but obeyed. It looked as though those messages from the heart could actually influence a person’s behaviour. The Lacey’s and others also discovered that our heartbeats aren’t just the mechanical throbs of a diligent pump, but an intelligent language that significantly influences how we perceive and react to the world. Subsequent Researchers discovered that the rhythmic beating patterns of the heart are transformed into neural impulses that directly affect the electrical activity of the higher brain centres that involve cognitive and emotional processing.

For centuries, poets and philosophers have felt that the heart is at the centre of our lives. When people are sincere they say, “they’re speaking from the heart”. They throw themselves into an activity “with all their heart”. When they betray their own interests “they’re thinking with their head, not their heart” and when they’re depressed “their disheartened”. Many ancient cultures including the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Babylonians and Greeks maintained that the primary organ capable of directing our emotions, morality and decision-making was the heart.

Most people would rather feel love and appreciation rather than resentment and depression; however, often the world around us seems to be spinning out of control. Despite our best intentions, it’s hard to maintain our emotional equilibrium when we’re confronted every day, sometimes every hour, with stressful situations. We’ve all been told, at one time or another, to “follow our hearts”. It sounds like a great idea; however, following our hearts and loving people, including ourselves, is easier said than done. New evidence forced us to rethink our attitude toward “following our hearts”. The heart isn’t mushy or sentimental. It’s intelligent and powerful and people at the Institute of HeartMath believe it holds promise for the next level of human development and for the survival of the world. Pretty powerful words but is it true?

I have always considered myself to be a positive person and despite challenges, I have attempted to do the best I could with what I had. Before experiencing it, I heard that going through a separation was one of the most stressful situations an individual could endure. I can tell you that I found my separation to be very stressful. When I broke my neck, I could “control” whether I reacted negatively or positively to situations. Experience provided an understanding of limitations and expectations. On the other hand, the stresses of a separation are not “controlled” by you.

My father said that “family units” were disintegrating. In turn, that affected local communities and ultimately the world. Our increasingly global society is faced with daunting challenges. The world’s power structures are changing. Leaders are suffering from a lack of credibility. Technology is rapidly linking the world through satellite television and the internet, creating opportunities and challenges. More nations are gaining nuclear capabilities. Threats of terrorism, global weather changes and uncertainty prevail.

Due to all the change, stress is at an all-time high. Albert Einstein said years ago, “The significant problems we face today cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them”. Developing the capacity to deal with the challenge of living in a stressful, ever-changing world is more important than ever. To live happily and healthily in all the turmoil that progress brings requires exploring new ideas. A central intelligence within each of us can lift us beyond our problems and into a new experience of fulfilment even amidst chaos.
For more information you can contact the Institute of HeartMath in Boulder Creek, California. The phone number is (831)338-8500 and email is