The head and the heart

I was asked the following question on Quora some time ago:

Why do people point/refer to their chest (heart) when they talk about the mind, when the head (brain) is the organ used for doing so?

Here’s my answer:

People who have had a western-style education generally point to their head when they are talking about their mind, and to their chest when they are talking about their heart, which is the “metaphorical container” for many if not most emotions.

Around the world, people have always associated the heart with intense emotions — anger, love, fear and so on. This may be because these emotions are actually felt in the heart and lungs. When you are aroused by strong anger, love, or fear, you may feel that your chest is pounding — and it often is! Your emotional state can affect your heart-rate and your breathing.

So using the heart as the metaphorical container for emotion is quite understandable.

What is harder for us to understand is why some cultures — such as Ancient Egypt — use(d) the heart as their metaphorical container for all mental concepts, including intelligence.

Didn’t Ancient Egyptians know that head injuries affected behavior and intelligence? The answer is yes they did know*, but for some reason this knowledge wasn’t prominent in their literary culture, which was happy to stick with the heart metaphor.

We can speculate that certain cultures — both ancient and modern — identify the agent or person with the seat of emotion, rather than the seat of seeing, hearing, smelling and tasting (which is easily identified with the head). Personhood is a complex concept, and to this day no one fully understands what it is. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with identifying the Self with emotions, and then assigning the heart as the symbol for emotional experience.

Our language and gestures are symbolic, and ultimately any symbol will suffice to communicate a basic idea. You might wonder why we don’t point to some specific part of the head, for example, when we talk about a particular aspect of cognition — after all, we have rough scientific conceptions of neural processes now. The answer is that it doesn’t matter all that much for the purpose of communication.

Having said that, it’s helpful for understanding (and it’s also aesthetically pleasing!) if our symbols partially reflect the underlying biological process, which is why using the heart as a metaphor for the seat of emotion is still quite acceptable. In the same way, we might say that a surgeon or pianist has “good hands”, even though neuroscientists tend to agree that dexterity is largely achieved by neural connections in the head, not the hands.


One of my favorite books is The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes. It’s a deeply strange book, so you have to take all its conclusions with a hefty pinch of salt. But the main reason I love it is because Jaynes asks questions that many people simply neglect to ask in the first place.

For example, Jaynes asks how exactly body parts became “metaphorical containers” for abstract qualities. How did courage become associated with the gut, or emotion with the heart, or life-force with the air in the lungs (from which the word ‘psyche’ ultimately derives)?

Jaynes’s answer — which you don’t have to believe, of course — is that humans discovered the associations between body parts and attributes through violence and death. He thinks that ancient battlefields might have taught people where abstract attributes were ‘located’. A stomach injury might make a person decidedly less brave. And when a person exhales for the last time their life-force seems to leave the body.

This way of thinking can seem quite primitive, but the way we conduct neuroscience now is basically an outgrowth of the same logic. We see what function is lost when a particular brain area breaks down, and then we label that brain area as the seat of that function.


Note

* See this answer for some quotes that show that at least some Ancient Egyptians were well aware of the importance of the head:

Israel Ramirez’s answer to What did people think the brain was before its actual function was found?

 

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