What is the heart?

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The word “Heart” most probably commandeered its gravity from the “cardiovascular theory”. The Cardiovascular Theory began in the 5th Century BC. Initiated by the Greeks, it postulated that the soul was located in the physical organ of the heart. While Plato maintained a bet each way that the soul was located in the head and heart, it was Aristotle who was adamant that the soul could be found in the physical organ itself (Jeeves and Brown, 2009).

Independent of, and prior to the Greeks, the Hebrews were using the word lev. It is an ancient Hebrew word, an abstract noun translated as ‘heart’ in modern bibles.  Lev has a variety of meanings and can mean different things in different contexts. In Job it is used to reference the physical organ but in other parts of the Hebrew scriptures it is used to reference the seat of vitality (Ps 22.26); and reaches to your very life (Je 418); as well as your inner self and the seat of feelings and impulses (Genesis 6:6). ‘Heart’ can also have a cerebral and conscious element, for instance to have kept in someone’s mind (Genesis 8.21) and conscience but more often ‘heart’ is used to reference deeper states of mind, character, disposition, inclination, loyalty, or concern (2 Samuel 15:13). Such cognitive states might also include motivational inclinations or ‘will’ (1 Samuel 17.32) or intention and purpose (Exodus 35:21). Typically in the Hebrew bible it comes with the adjectives of “soft” or “hard” and these words give us the idea that the heart is something that can be deeply connected with God or others, or defiantly disconnected from God or others.

In its old English form and its Hebrew form the word “heart” has meant both the organ that circulates the blood and the bottom line origin of feelings and thoughts. It is the truth about oneself. The physical definition then becomes a good metaphor for psychological purposes. The heart keeps us alive. The heart drives us. It reveals our deepest commitments. The heart points us towards our life direction and reflects our morals. What is on our heart defines us and gives us value and purpose.

William Shakespeare wrote in Henry V, “but a good heart, Kate, is the sun and the moon; or rather, the sun, and not the moon;  for it shines bright and never changes, but keeps his course truly” (Henry V 5.2 154). The Bard expresses the notion that to have a full heart is to have direction and energy, it is to ‘see’ meaning and purpose in life.

In the present day we of course use the two different senses of the word (biological and psychological) frequently. We manage to use the different meanings with ease and we let the context of the word help create the meaning of it.

When we observe its use in society we see it is high in psychological utility. A ‘heart broken’ girl whose boyfriend has run off with another girl, has found a shorthand way of saying “This incident has left me feeling devalued, directionless and lifeless”. Having a “heart to heart” means having a deep and connected conversation about something of substance and interacting with the substance of the other person. Having a “change of heart” means having not only a change of mind, but a change of direction. People who are ‘heartless’ are those who don’t care, and are disconnected.

We can see from the examples below that the English language is rich in expressions that use the word ‘heart’ to convey deeper concepts:
A ‘heart-broken’ girl whose boyfriend has ended their relationship, has found a shorthand way of saying, “This incident has left me feeling devalued, directionless and lifeless”.
Having a “heart-to-heart” means having a deep and connected conversation about something of substance, and interacting deeply with another person.
Similarly, getting to the ‘heart of the matter’ means dealing with the real or substantial issues being discussed.
Having a “change of heart” means having not only a change of mind, but a change of direction or a change of values.
People who are ‘heartless’ are those who don’t care and are disconnected.

As a word, it is as beautiful as it is versatile. It is an ancient word, one that is as old as the oldest book in the bible. The Hebrew word ‘lebab’ has been used for thousands of years to point to deeper capacities that are characteristic of being human such as our will, feelings and impulses, character and our inclination to form attachments with others. It is our control centre, and the centre of our inner life. It is the seat from which our thoughts, feelings, behaviours and physical symptoms come. The Greek word ‘kardia’ is similar. It refers to the emotional centre of our being. I will use a definition of ‘heart’ that draws from ancient roots, but has a contemporary twist. It is the seat of our deeply held personal truths, our uniqueness and our significance. Psychologically it incorporates three of our most important needs:

1. Our need for positive nurturing relationships, also known as connection. Connection builds our sense of value, trust, belonging and honour.
2. Our need for identity, or direction in life
3. Our need for choices or a sense that things are under control

Pictorially, we might conceptualise it in the way depicted by the image at the top of this post.

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