“The human heart has hidden treasures, in secret kept, in silence sealed.” — Charlotte Brontë
Until the late 1900s, mainstream science perceived the heart as solely a pump that regulates blood flow throughout the body. However, within many cultures, ancient and current, philosophers, poets and prophets have looked at the human heart as the source of love, wisdom, intuition, memory and emotion. Now through modern science and multiple leading studies from the HeartMath Institute in California, scientists are coming to the agreement that the heart plays even more of a role in the human body.
‘Speaking from the heart’, ‘learn it off by heart’ or ‘having a heartfelt conversation’ are all sayings we are familiar with although initially may not make complete sense. Surely when someone knows all the lyrics to a song, it’s because the knowledge is stored in their brain and not in their heart?
It’s typically understood that the brain is the main control centre over the whole body, sending different instructions to the organs through the nervous system. But in fact, the heart sends more signals to the brain than the brain does to the heart, influencing a person’s emotions, memory, high-level cognitive functions and problem-solving.
We have 40,000 neurons and a whole network of neurotransmitters located in our heart. These neurons are concentrated in such a way that they act as an extension of the brain, yet they can act completely independently. Scientists have nicknamed them ‘the little brain in the heart’. Sixty-seven percent of the cells in the heart are nerve cells which can receive and compute organic stimuli and then autonomously send information to the brain. These cells are able to learn, feel and think of their own accord. This means that we have a form of intelligence in the heart that can function completely separately from the brain. But even more fascinating is what happens when our brain and heart function together, in harmony.
When we are in a state of heart-brain harmony our body understands this as healing and love. An efficient conversation starts to take place between the brain and the heart and a cascade of over 1,300 positive biochemical reactions in the body takes place. Anti-ageing hormones kick in, the body gets a powerful immune response and cardiovascular benefits develop. The body starts to go back into a state of homeostasis where the body has an internally stable state irrelative to influences of the external environment. The healing powers of the heart begin to take over. Oxytocin, also known as the ‘love hormone’, gets released in the heart inhibiting the stress response and its relative hormones. As a result, oxytocin reduces cortisol levels, blood pressure, anxiety and promotes all kinds of positive social reactions.
So how does someone create heart-brain coherence?
Combined with a healthy diet and regular exercise, the primary method to achieve heart-brain coherence is a simple 10-second breathing technique. This technique begins with sending your focus to your heart. Many people do not realise why we bring our hands together to our chest when we pray. The act centres your focus, and therefore your energy, on your heart. Many religious or spiritual practices do this and almost all yoga classes will open and close with the hands together in a bow of ‘Namaste’.
Once the focus is centred to the heart a breathing rate of ‘in for five seconds, out for five seconds’ is applied. Additionally, experiencing a positive emotion by asking yourself what you have gratitude, appreciation, compassion or care for, will result in creating heart-brain coherence and the flood of benefits will follow.
Perhaps Charlotte Brontë was ahead of her time in the 1800s with her views on the heart. Now that modern science has provided the evidence to back her intuition, maybe it is time we all listen to our hearts more often than our heads. It is, however, when the two work together, in unison that enables us to be the best version of ourselves.