How Does the Biological Heart Have to Do With Our Emotions?
Reinhard Friedl on the Relationship Between the Body’s Mechanisms and Its Feelings
Some people are able to feel their heartbeat consciously and even count it precisely inside themselves. Scientists have a keen interest in them, because the heart rate is a measurable, verifiable number, not an intangible feeling. From studying those who can intimately feel their heart rate, researchers hope to gain new insights about the consciousness of the heart—and they report interesting findings. In one study, healthy students were shown different movie scenes. Good “heartbeat counters” felt emotions such as fear and anger (but also joy) considerably more intensely than those who were less well able to feel their heartbeat.
But the conscious perception of our heart intensifies not only our emotions but also our empathy with others. Students who were more able to feel the frequency of their heartbeat could also more accurately distinguish if faces in pictures were happy or sad.
A study published in 2017 describes that those who can feel their heartbeat more accurately behave less selfishly in money affairs and don’t only consider their own interests. Even though the financial generosity was only measured in a game, the data shows that the good heartbeat counters display heightened sensitivity toward themselves and others. On the other hand, the sensitive heart perceivers also become stressed more easily. In exam situations they performed worse and were plagued by negative emotions.
Should you not feel your heartbeat at the moment, you have no reason to be alarmed. You just belong to the majority (65 percent) of people who do not feel their heartbeat when at rest, and I assume you are reading in a relaxed state, not while you are jogging. Numerous factors can play a role in heart perception when one is at rest; it depends on one’s physique as well. A common mechanism of heart perception is the beating of the heart against the left inside of the chest. This so-called apex beat is felt more frequently by slim people, men, and athletes with large hearts. The pulsing of our arteries inside us—in the head, stomach, or throat—are other possible ways through which we can perceive our heart’s rhythm. However, some people manage to do it just like that, without any pulsation, merely via nerve signals or because they have a very pronounced sense of their bodies. I don’t believe that this perception makes them better people. But I recognize in the work of current consciousness research an increasing interest in the heart as a place where more may be found than was so far assumed.
Not all people are glad about being able to feel their heartbeat. Many suffer when they frequently feel their heart intensely, because it worries them a great deal. Especially when they not only strongly feel the rhythm of their heart in general, but sometimes feel it to be irregular and connected with pain, chest tightness, or shortness of breath. Often the diagnostic apparatuses will not show any abnormal results. If the panic because of the pump continues, doctors speak of cardiophobia attacks or cardiac neurosis. The causes are often deeply hidden. As a surgeon I know that wounds heal better when they are looked after. Daily dressing changes and wound examinations are compulsory in every surgery department. Wounds of the soul, too, have to be seen in order to heal. If we continuously ignore them, the heart will make itself felt at some stage.
I find that the voice of the heart is really loud in our childhood. It knows what makes us happy, it knows what makes us sad, it knows what makes us strong. The hearts of young people are still very sensitive and malleable. This voice becomes quieter the more we think, the more we are educated and shaped, the more our heart is hurt. Then one day some of us do not hear the voice at all anymore. The mere memory of the injuries to our heart continues to hurt a lot, and many of us therefore do not want to feel their hearts anymore—after all, feeling always means feeling pain, doesn’t it?
Thus, they become ever more insensitive in matters of the heart. I have met more than a few patients who were even ashamed of the injuries to their heart and did not want to disclose them under any circumstances. Over the years they lose access to themselves, and the formerly protective armor becomes hard and tight and rigid. But the voice of the heart is still there. It lives as long as we do. However, if it is continuously ignored, our heart will one day start to beat and race in a way that will greatly worry us. And we become afraid because we have long forgotten the cause. The time of injury is not always as recent as with Kordula, whose husband cheated on her. Sedatives and beta blockers are no long-term solution, but make us heart-deaf. It is better to lend an ear to this voice finally and start at the heart to retrace the path to the root of the wound. This is best done in the company of an experienced doctor who not only knows the soul very well but also the heart. Such patients need courage to engage with their almost-forgotten heart, trust to follow its voice, and finally compassion and love for themselves.
Astonishing research shows how the pure mechanics of the heart, with its contraction and relaxation, influence our perception profoundly via nerve tracts. Faces are perceived more intensely and threateningly when subjects see them during the contraction phase of the heart and the feelers for the pressures in the ventricles are activated. Simultaneously the amygdala, our center for fear and anger in the brain, becomes active and is supplied with more blood. Images are deemed less threatening when the heart is relaxed and filled with blood. Because our heart contracts and relaxes permanently (depending on the strain, this process is sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker), what is important is the net effect: the balance of exertion and relaxation across a longer period of time. If we perceive the world as friendly or hostile also depends on the pump function of our heart, the pressures in its cavities, and its signals to the brain. For this reason alone it is important to be balanced in the heart and to feel one’s voice. In a twist on the old saying: Man proposes, but the heart disposes.
From The Source of All Things. Used with the permission of publisher, St. Martin’s Press. Copyright © 2021 Reinhard Friedl.