The Heart Has a “Brain”

Awareness Begins in the Heart, Not the Brain

Whether religion, literature, or love lyrics, the heart has a long history of being popularly associated with passion, feeling, consciousness, and awareness. But studies within the new field of neurocardiology are beginning to explain the heart’s intimate connection to the brain and the critical role the organ plays in our very sense of self.

Research in the past two decades has shown that the heart is an information processing center that can learn, remember, and act independently of the cranial brain and actually connect and send signals to key brain areas such as the amygdala, thalamus, and hypothalamus, which regulate our perceptions and emotions. It seems we have a second “brain” in our chest. [Source 1]

As a result, the brain-heart connection is steadily being paid more attention throughout academia. In the journal Nature Neuroscience, for example, scientists conducted experiments using functional imaging and a heartbeat detection task to track the psychosomatic link between certain neural systems and the viscera, or internal organs, particularly the heart.

The authors conclude that this “interoceptive awareness” contributes yet another layer to the total yet composite experience we call “consciousness.” [Source 2]

There’s also evidence that this “heart brain” can receive and respond to stimuli before the cranial brain processes it, like a split-second “body premonition.” Researchers published a study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine that correlated the heart-rate variability of participants with a “pre-stimulus.”

In other words, the study subjects’ heartbeats were intuitively sensing an oncoming change. Essentially, their hearts “felt” the future before it happened. And even though the brain and body as a whole are involved in processing that stimulus, it appears the heart gets there first. [Source 3]

But perhaps the most intriguing research in neurocardiology today is the relation between and reaction of the sensing heart of one individual on another.

Studies at the HeartMath Research Center have detected in individuals up to five feet apart that the heart’s electromagnetism—the largest in the body—can affect and even synchronize with another participant’s brain waves. In short, the brain seems to be innately sensitive and receptive to the heart “energy” of others.
[Source 4]

Such electromagnetic communication, as strange as it seems, makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, with natural selection selecting for deeper mutual understanding, nonverbal or otherwise, within a group over generations. For two million years (not counting millions of years in primate evolution), humanity was defined by small-group living with day-to-day interactions among some 20-30 people on average.

Empathy would have been paramount—in fact, it still is. And who could deny that the actual subjective experience of emotions isn’t centered in the heart, electric, and contagious? [Source 5]

What we think of as “mind” increasingly appears to be a whole-body, embodied phenomena, with our heart at the center. It’s something we’ve known intuitively about ourselves for millennia but can now articulate via science.

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