The love heart has become synonymous with all things romantic; but the relationship between the emblem and the real human organ is more complicated, and less metaphorical, than you might realise.
Heart specialist and practicing cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar has given a fascinating talk in which he explores the link between emotions and the human heart.
The symbolism of the heart shape is endless, featuring on countless Valentine’s cards, appearing in paintings of lovers since the 13th century and adorning Roman Catholic churches in the guise of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Today we know that the ancient world was wrong about one thing – romantic feelings and love emotions are not ‘stored’ in the human heart as was once thought. But while the heart might not be the origin of feelings, there is a very powerful connection between romantic feelings and this vital organ.
“In a sense, a record of our emotional life is written on our hearts. Fear and grief, for example, can cause profound cardiac injury. The nerves that control unconscious processes such as the heartbeat can sense distress and trigger a maladaptive fight-or-flight response that triggers blood vessels to constrict, the heart to gallop and blood pressure to rise, resulting in damage. In other words, it is increasingly clear that our hearts are extraordinarily sensitive to our emotional system, to the metaphorical heart, if you will,” says Jauhar.
He goes on to describe a heart disorder, first recognised about two decades ago, called "takotsubo cardiomyopathy," or ‘the broken heart syndrome’.
“The heart acutely weakens in response to intense stress or grief, such as after a romantic breakup or the death of a loved one,” says Jauhar. “The grieving heart...looks very different than the normal heart. It appears stunned and frequently balloons into the distinctive shape of a takotsubo, a Japanese pot with a wide base and a narrow neck. We don't know exactly why this happens, and the syndrome usually resolves within a few weeks. However, in the acute period, it can cause heart failure, life-threatening arrhythmias, even death.”
“Perhaps as an ode to our ancient philosophers, we can say that even if emotions are not contained inside our hearts, the emotional heart overlaps its biological counterpart, in surprising and mysterious ways,” says Jauhar.
This insight is a great reminder that looking after our emotional wellbeing is to take care of our whole selves. Romantic heartbreak might literally feel as if we’ve been broken, but the human heart, just like the romantic one, can and will heal.