Your Heart Really May Have a Mind of Its Own
Have you ever been torn between "what your head is telling you" and "what your heart is telling you"? If so, you might be surprised at just how much your heart does have to say. It's a little-known fact outside of scientific circles, but your heart actually contains some 40,000 neurons — the same cells which make up the bulk of your brain.
And they don't just respond to directions from the brain. The heart also sends messages to the brain — messages that go beyond basic messages like pain signals and other unconscious data. It also sends messages to the parts of the brain which process thoughts and emotions. This means that your heart really can affect your decisions and feelings.
The phrase "listen to your heart" takes on a whole new meaning when you consider this information.
Exploring the "heart mind"
The term "heart mind" was coined in 1991 to describe the neural network of the heart. In spite of this, there's no evidence that the "heart mind" is really a "mind" in the conventional way. It does not — at least as far as we know — have any consciousness of its own. Communication with the brain, however, is a two-way street. It's more like a marriage than the master/slave relationship the brain has with the rest of the body. The heart appears to be able to "make decisions" about how it will behave on its own, independently of the brain.
The heart is an organ unlike any other. Cardiac cells — heart muscle cells — are completely unique. They don't exist anywhere else, unlike other types of cells. And even when isolated in a petri dish, far from the heart they originated in, heart cells beat. It's the synchronized contraction and relaxation of our millions of heart cells which cause our hearts to beat, and when some cells "lose the beat," it results in dangerous cardiac arrhythmia.
The heart also generates its own electromagnetic field, just like the brain. (What we measure and call "brain waves" are changes in its electromagnetic field.) The heart's electromagnetic field, however, is about 60 times as strong as that of the brain and can be measured from several feet away. This field can also affect other hearts if they are close enough — when two people are in close proximity for a period of time, their hearts will synchronize just like the individual cells synchronize.
That's pretty amazing.
This isn't the only additional "mind" our bodies have
There's a reason we talk about both "following our heart" and "listening to our gut. Our guts too contain a large neural network that influences our brains. While the heart's neural network has been largely ignored by mainstream science, the "gut brain" has gotten a little more attention and can give us some clues about the heart mind.
Scientists agree that the "gut brain" is much too complex to be limited to controlling digestion. And in fact 90% of the vagus nerve — which carries signals from the organs to the brain — is devoted to information being sent from the gut to the brain. That "butterflies in the stomach" feeling we get when stressed out originates in the gut brain. And stimulating the vagus nerve is a useful but seldom-used depression treatment.
All this suggests that the three brains — our "head brain," our "heart brain," and our "gut brain" — are intimately entangled. The ancient belief that emotions are tied to the heart — and in some cultures, the gut — might not be as far-fetched as we believe.
What does this mean in real world terms?
First and foremost, it means that we don't understand the body nearly as well as we'd like to believe. Researchers at Boston Children's Hospital, for example, have discovered that the neurons in the brain's prefrontal cortex are more closely related to heart cells than to their neighboring brain cells. That's something we'd never have imagined. And other studies have found that SSRI antidepressants raise the levels of serotonin not just in the brain, but in the neural networks of the gut and heart. In the gut, this can lead to irritable bowel syndrome. In the heart — who knows?
It also means that there's more to our "gut feelings" than meets the eye. Perhaps a lot more. In fact, the idea of the "three brains" could explain a lot of things — like why some people give us the "heebie jeebies" or stress us out merely by being nearby while others calm us down. If our heart networks interact with the electromagnetic fields of others', we could be reading information from others' "heartwaves" just like an EEG reads brainwaves.
It could help explain why intense emotions play a role in heart attacks, and give us a useful tool for preventing them. And it underlines the idea that positive emotions and stress reduction can have a profound effect on heart health.
The most powerful tools I've found for keeping a positive outlook and reducing stress are these:
- DO look on the bright side. No matter how bad the situation, there's always some bright spot. It may be no bigger than a pinprick, but it's there. Focus on it. Practice gratitude every day.
- Be mindful. Practice being present in the moment, rather than worrying about the future or dwelling in the past.
- Avoid negative people and negative situations as much as possible.
- Get enough sleep. Lack of sleep causes both physiological and psychological stress.
And last but not least — turn off your television. Today's television programming is a 24/7 fear-fest, designed to teach us that the world is a big, scary place we should be afraid of. Don't listen to the message.
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