Who are we? What defines us?
Is it our individual experiences, emotions, and decisions? The interaction of the heart and brain is essential to our ability to make conscious decisions, with the heart sending signals to the brain that influence our feelings and emotions. So, experiences that affect our heartbeats can therefore modify the results of our brain processes, including decision-making. Heart on the Brain is a reflection on what it means to be human, a discussion of the scientific evidence for the heart’s influence on the brain, and a guide to listening to both in order to make better decisions and be the person we aim to be.
While trying to find a definition of who we are as humans might take us on an inner journey to self-knowledge, we can see the correlation of the human heart and the human brain as an essential part in developing our ability to make conscious decisions throughout our lives.
Who are we? What defines us?
So many aspects should be taken into consideration when questioning who we are and what defines us. What makes us distinctive as individuals? If looking into the core of human existence, we are all the same. However, while paving our path through our human journey, our individual experiences and emotions make us unique as a person.
It is important to know your own heart, not only as of the biological pump that provides cells with oxygen and nutrients but also as the core of feelings and emotions. Also, understand how your brain is liable for building your identity as an individual since it is responsible for the decision-making. The brain’s ability to make decisions is directly connected to choosing who we are and who we will become.
But how do we make decisions? How does the brain make decisions?
When the heart and brain interact, the heart continually sends signals to the brain, giving rise to how we feel. The heart and the mind seem to be working in unison, constant communication and interaction.
Feelings and emotions, like joy or sorrow, are responsible for influencing the dynamics of the heart. Since the brain is connected to the heart, once it has received this “information,” the brain’s decision-making process is based on this interaction and experience.
As humans, when we have experiences in life capable of modifying our heartbeats, this interaction is responsible for influencing the brain process and changing the result, including decision-making. The perception of our own heartbeats has been shown to influence behaviour as well. When an experience is too scary or exciting, our decisions may differ based on emotions and feelings.
Learning to look into the core of ourselves, as humans, and listen to our own heartbeats will help us evolve as humans.
The question “can the heart think and feel?” will always be an example to be explored in human existence. If the brain is an essential part of creating our identity, can we consider the heart to play a crucial role as well?
We often define ourselves based on a specific characteristic, passion, or job. When times get tough, we feel as though our whole identity has been stripped away. By building a rich identity that encompasses the many facets of your personality, you can weather any storm without losing yourself in the process. With this book, I encourage you to look at the many aspects that may be part of who you are.
With this book, I also intend to provide a new perspective on human identity through the heart. Too often, we rely on our brain to tell us who we are. Turn a listening ear inward to discover the richness of the heart-brain interaction and truly understand yourself.
I would also like to challenge you to think about the concrete truths you hold about the world and yourself, and come up with your own interpretations, views, and perspectives that stem from within.
To know the depths of your heart and your brain is to truly know yourself.
Knowing yourself is the basis of finding your purpose and discovering your passion. Discovering your passion will unlock the door to a fulfilled life by leading you towards what’s important… and away from what isn’t.
Humans, like all living creatures, are intrinsically complex and sentient beings. Our physical bodies are extraordinarily complicated, and every organ has a crucial role to play. However, the heart and the brain more frequently come up in conversations about biology, science, consciousness, spirituality, and religion than any other part of the human body. For centuries, the interaction between the heart and brain has been a source of intrigue and wonder.
Emotionally, scientifically, and philosophically, the relationship between the heart and brain has been explored in order to answer the great existential questions of the human condition, not only biologically, in the way they sustain life and keep us healthy, but also how they influence our emotions, thoughts, perception of the self and the choices we make and the mechanisms driving them.
Without one or the other, we are incomplete – and the same can be said for each one of us as individuals. Within life, we each have a special purpose that is unique only to us, and our presence is an integral part of the society and universe in which we exist.
The Human Heart
Centuries ago, when scientists were just beginning to research the workings of the human body, they focused on the heart as the physical centre of not only our life but our intelligence and emotions as well. However, with scientific developments, they realized that the heart is not a chamber for our souls but is instead a biological pump. This does not reduce its significance. Our hearts pump life-giving oxygen and nutrients throughout our body, feeding our other organs and ensuring that everything is working perfectly and in unison.
The association between the heart and human emotions run deep in the human psyche to this day. When we are frightened, we feel our heart beating hard as our blood pressure rises. In sadness, we experience heartache as our muscles tighten and constrict. Someone in love may feel a fluttering sensation as their pulse rate quickens. It turns out that these are so much more than metaphors. Instead, a part of the fascinating way we experience feelings, physically as well as psychologically.
Indeed, there is a phenomenon known as the ‘heart-brain’, referring to the fact that the cardiac nervous system of our heart is an intricate system consisting of 40,000 neurons, which are very similar to the neurons found in the brain. There is no doubt that referring to the heart as only a biological pump is selling it short. Science has revealed that, as an intelligent organ, it engages in constant communication with the brain.
The Human Brain
The heart evidently has a role to play in our experiences, emotions, and actions. However, focusing only on the heart, at the expense of the brain, would restrict us from truly understanding our human consciousness. Our experiences, interpretations, beliefs, values, and subsequent attitudes, decisions, and choices, all arise from the mental processes happening in our brains.
As the command centre for the nervous system, the brain receives signals as electronic impulses from the body’s sensory organs and then relays the information to the muscles. Essentially, human consciousness would be impossible without the brain. Composed of billions of nerve cells, countless nerve fibres and literally trillions of connections, the brain is the driving centre for our perceptions of the world, the ways in which we interpret our experiences, our memories, our sense of self and identity, and the choices we make and their resulting actions.
This highly sophisticated and specialised organ regulates every major and minor system within our bodies. It not only directs our bodies’ internal functions but integrates sensory impulses from the outside world and the information coming from our internal thoughts and observations. Whilst it weighs only three pounds, the brain is the source of our entire consciousness and – by extension – what it is to be human.
While the functioning of the brain might be complex, I live by the philosophy of explanatory parsimony: Even humanity’s most difficult discoveries can be explained in simple English. In other words, in order for our work to become helpful to society, we should be able to explain it simply.
I live by this philosophy myself; though, of course, I risk losing some of the nuances of the inherently complex issues under discussion. The subjects I will be discussing here, the heart and brain, are inherently complex. In this book, I am not aiming to spend too much time analysing these individual parts but hope to scratch on the correlation of the two. While I cannot promise to capture the whole scientific picture, I do hope to begin a questioning process, which then addresses fundamental questions that have likely been nagging at you. I begin by tackling the biggest philosophical question of all: Who are we?
Who are we, and what defines us?
Coming from a small town in the French part of Switzerland, surrounded by mountains and a stunning landscape, I soon understood that nothing should be taken for granted. At an early age, I was told that my mother’s pregnancy was not planned; however, in a conscious decision, my parents agreed not to end the pregnancy. It was my first lesson in life: be grateful to favourable circumstances.
While growing up, I was taught many lessons about life. Those lessons were predefined by a mix of occurrences surrounding me, like my origins, my parent’s backgrounds, societal expectations, religion, gender, and the environment I was in.
Once I started to mature and had more understanding about my surroundings and having my own experiences in life, I realised that I am more than those predefined concepts given to me while growing up. I realised I could not fit in the predesignated “box” I was put in.
The more rural nature of the country taught me to get used to the quiet. Life can get quite hectic, but during these lonely evening hours, I figured out what my thoughts were on certain things. When I was away from home, it was during these quiet evening hours in solitude that made me realise that we cannot be solely reduced to our origins or to a predefinition. That would reduce ourselves to homesickness and a limited aspect.
As a young teenager, I discovered athletics and all the dynamics of emotions and feelings my heart presented to me. I then learned how important all those complex feelings were and how it could make me feel good or bad, and how essential it is to “feel” all the physical and mental changes in my body. All those emotions were moulding me into the person I would become.
As an athlete, I have faced many ups and downs; in times where I was not able to compete for many different reasons, it was almost like my identity was taken away from me. I had learned how introspection could be a gift, helping me to become mentally healthy, even when I was physically ill.
I also became aware that it can happen the other way around. Why are we mentally exhausted while our heart feels heavy, and why are we mentally strong when our heart feels in harmony? Have you ever asked yourself these questions? When life is close to the heart, we experience many ups and downs, and this is when we have to enjoy the ride and disregard what causes our feelings not to connect with our bodies.
As a teenager, I had spent most of my free time competing as a middle-distance athlete. Being in sports was not about toning my body; it was how I learned to connect and accept my tall and thin anatomy. It made me competitive, self-aware about my physique and how I should accept my anatomical structure.
In the early days, I was always in sports stadiums for practice and did not take long to learn about the word “sexy” and how it plays a different role in teens’ lives, especially when the body shame and idea of “perfect look” come around. It did not feel right to me.
When someone does not accept their own body or is not happy with the way they look in the mirror, it makes them feel disconnected. The body and heart are at different frequencies. Judging someone because of their body structure, weight, height, and overall appearance is, by all means, wrong and does not define who the person is.