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Matters of The Heart

Ian Kennedy

Of all the internal organs that allow us to function, it is the heart that has over the span of humanity received more attention than any other. Before the advent of modern medicine and its current myopic, mechanistic view of heart function, the heart was thought to be the seat of thought, knowledge, wisdom, and feeling. In Ancient Egypt, the heart was regarded as the organic motor of the body and the seat of intelligence. Counter to other organs it had to be kept carefully intact in the mummy to ensure the soul’s eternal life. Historically in many cultures, it has been an important religious and spiritual symbol. Similarly, traditional Chinese medicine believes that the human spirit or ‘Shen’ resides in the heart. In Causae et Curae, the 12th-century healer and Christian mystic Hildegard of Bingen wrote, “In the same way, the soul lives in the heart as in a house; causes thoughts to enter and leave as through a door… the power of thought climbs to the brain, and the brain holds them fast…”

For conventional medicine, the heart has been viewed simply as a pump for blood flow. However, in 1920, Rudolph Steiner, founder of anthrophonic medicine, pointed out in lectures that the heart was not a pump forcing inert blood to move with pressure, but that the blood was propelled with its own energetic biological momentum, as can be seen in the embryo, and boosts itself with "induced" momenta from the heart. He also stated that the pressure does not cause the blood to circulate but is caused by interrupting the circulation. For one thing, when blood enters the heart, it is traveling at the same speed as when it exits. It slows down as it heads to the smaller capillaries to transfer nutrients, then moves to the venous system, a highway of larger and larger veins that eventually lead back to the heart. As it approaches, the blood speeds up again. The heart acts more like a dam at this point, trapping the blood and holding it in its chambers until they are filled.

This fist-sized miraculous organ not only directs oxygen-enriched blood to all the other organs and tissues of the body, but it also sets up a rhythm within us, acts as a timekeeper, responds to our physiologic demands, and is associated with our emotional life. The heart is certainly more than a pump, more than a muscle, and more than a metaphor for love. It is a sensory organ, it listens. As a sensory organ it acts like a conductor, controlling the rhythms of cellular management and even excreting hormones. More recently, it was discovered the heart also manufactures and secretes oxytocin, which can act as a neurotransmitter and commonly is referred to as the love or social bonding hormone. Thus, the heart maintains homeostasis and is a vital energy receiver and producer. It sets up physiological responses depending on external and internal stimulation, including our thoughts. For example, it races when faced with danger and delivers blood to the muscles in-sighting the fight, flight, or freeze response.

It is interesting that when we refer to ourselves, we commonly put our hand over our heart. It is automatic, almost instinctive, as if a mysterious, primal voice were telling us that the center of our true being, our soul and conscience is located right there. The heart has a system of neurons that have both short and long-term memory. In fetal development, the heart forms and starts beating well before the brain is developed. Curiously, it has also been demonstrated that a mother’s brainwaves can synchronize to her baby’s heartbeats. It has also been demonstrated that a child’s hearts will entrain to the heartbeat rhythm of the family dog when they lay close together.

Love, compassion, and tenderness arise from the heart. If we are told a person is “warm-hearted” we know just what that means. If we experience someone as cruel, we see them as “cold-hearted.” When we fall in love is it not our heart that we give away to the other person? And when tragedy strikes, is it not our heart that suffers most? We have heard of people dying from a broken heart. Johnny and June Cash are examples. They were married for thirty-five years and their devotion to one other was palatable. When June died on May 15th, 2003, Johnny quickly followed on September 12th, 2003. Many rightly believed he followed her due to a broken heart. Another more recent case was Carrie Fisher, of Star Wars fame, who died of an apparent heart attack on December 27th, 2016. Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher’s mother, died of a cerebral hemorrhage just a day later December 28, 2016. Many felt she just could not emotionally deal with the death of her beloved daughter. This phenomenon of emotional shock causing heart attacks is quite commonly observed.

Numerous studies have shown that people who feel lonely, depressed, and isolated are many times more likely to get sick and die prematurely - not only of heart disease but from virtually all causes - than those who have a sense of connection, love, and community. For elderly individuals, or those with heart disease, psychological stress and abrupt emotional shock or trauma is the strongest predictor of cardiac events such as cardiac death and cardiac arrest.

Not surprisingly, people have an easier time discussing their blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol values than speaking about their psychological state. People do not like being depressed but, in our society, there is a certain stigma about things like depression. When patients are not as forthcoming about these issues, it makes it that much harder to identify and treat. Fortunately, we have a valuable way of assessing the psycho-neural physiology through evaluation of the autonomic nervous system that influences so many organs, glands, and tissues. This can be done through heart rate variability analysis. While heart rate refers to the number of times your heart beats per minute, heart rate variability (HRV) measures the time between each heartbeat. Also known as an R-R interval, this beat-to-beat interval variation is measured in milliseconds and can vary depending on several factors.

Thus, performing a HRV can detect the balance and status the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system. This interval variability is a particularly good measure of the efficiency and performance of not only your cardiovascular system, but all the other bodily functions under the control of the autonomic nervous system. Studies show that people who have a high HRV are healthier and live longer with less risk of disease. Whereas a lower HRV is associated with heart attacks, strokes, and degenerative diseases. Heart rate variability may also be a marker of how well your body can handle stress.

Thus, this simple analysis when understood properly reveals a glimpse into the person’s overall health, including their emotional well-being. Negative emotions lead to increased disorder in the heart’s rhythms and in the autonomic nervous system, thereby adversely affecting the rest of the body. In contrast, positive emotions create increased harmony and coherence in heart rhythms and improve balance in the nervous system. The health implications are easy to understand: Disharmony in the nervous system leads to inefficiency and increased stress on the heart and other organs while harmonious rhythms are more efficient and less stressful to the body’s systems. HRV analysis is indispensable in bioregulatory medicine for gauging a person’s progress during treatment and in maintaining optimal health.

The heart generates the largest electromagnetic field in the body. The electrical field as measured in an electrocardiogram (ECG) is about 60 times greater in amplitude than the brain waves recorded in an electroencephalogram (EEG). The magnetic component of the heart’s field, which is around 5000 times stronger than that produced by the brain, is not impeded by tissues and can be measured several feet away from the body with Superconducting Quantum Interference Device (SQUID)- based magnetometers.

The adult heart has around 40,000 neurons (nerve cells) and a whole network of neurotransmitters with extremely specific functions, which makes it a perfect extension of the brain. In terms of heart-brain communication, it is generally well-known that the efferent (descending) pathways in the autonomic nervous system are involved in the regulation of the heart. However, it is less appreciated that many fibers in the vagus nerves are afferent (ascending) in nature. Furthermore, more of these ascending neural pathways are related to the heart (and cardiovascular system) than to any other organ. This means the heart sends more information to the brain than the brain sends to the heart. More recent research shows that the neural interactions between the heart and brain are more complex than previously thought. In addition, the intrinsic cardiac nervous system has both short-term and long-term memory functions and can operate independently of central neuronal command. Thus, the heart sends more neurological information to the brain than vice versa.

Research in this field conducted by the Institute of Heart Math reveals that it is the heart that first processes our initial reaction to stress before sending the information to brain. If the heart perceives a situation as a threat, the brain then sets off a series of alarm signals to produce stress hormones, which eventually leads to inflammation – weakening of blood vessels, constriction of blood vessels, platelets turning sticky, raising heart rate, and elevating blood pressure. During stress and negative emotions, when the heart rhythm pattern is erratic and disordered, the corresponding pattern of neural signals traveling from the heart to the brain inhibits higher cognitive functions. This limits our ability to think clearly, remember, learn, reason, and make effective decisions.

The electromagnetic energy generated by the heart is an untapped resource within the human system awaiting further exploration and application. The heart acting as a sensory and synchronizing force within the mind-body is a transmitter of emotional information that connects us deeper with our life experience. The power of love and compassion cannot function successfully in our lives without the synchronization of both our head and our heart rhythms.

Ian Kennedy


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