The ancient philosophers never even dreamed how much they overestimated the role of the heart. They were partly right, but they were based more on conjecture. It seems to us that emotional responses – like an accelerated heartbeat – begin in the brain. For example, there is talk about the role of the amygdala and prefrontal cortex along with neurotransmitters. In mass culture, no less, the heart continues to symbolize feelings and sometimes even … rooms that we use frequently.
The heart muscle works constantly. It pumps blood throughout the body. Like a reliable machine. That’s amazing, to say the least, considering that new appliances, electronics, cars, and whatever else comes to mind break down the day after the warranty period expires. A heart, on the other hand, usually works for many years. Okay, it has failures too, but if it was an electronic appliance and you got a warranty for at least 20, 30, 50 years…. – you wouldn’t believe the advertising. And rightly so – good equipment doesn’t need advertising. Sometimes you just need to show that it exists.
SEE IF YOU HAVE A HEART
However, are you paying attention to the fact that your heart is beating? You rush for the bus, sit down and feel like you’re going to spit out your lungs. Maybe that’s when you remember you have a heart. That sounded ambiguous. I meant it just beats. So as you read this, I suggest a little experiment. Put your hand on your heart and feel your heartbeat. Enjoy that moment. Now think about why that beating normally doesn’t bother you at all? Would you fall asleep if someone was poking you in the chest? Try falling asleep with a mosquito (that’s right with her – mosquitoes only need flowers, it’s the females who storm the blood donation centers). And your heart beats non-stop and somehow you don’t get enough of it.
APPEARANCES ARE DECEIVING
Or maybe it only seems so to you. But the truth is quite different. Your brain actually hates your heartbeat. That’s not surprising at all. Since we’re referring to mechanics, unless you’re buying a Ford Mustang, you’re more likely to want a quiet engine. The brain also needs quiet. It has thousands of stimuli to process in an instant. Sound, touch, sight, taste – everything has to be grasped in fractions of a second to form a coherent picture of the surrounding world. Heartbeat would only disturb the perception of stimuli.
DE-NOISE THE STIMULI
This is well illustrated by working with sound and its de-noising. In short, the algorithm is simple: we record noise, we record what we want to record – let’s say our voice (with the noise, of course), and then, in short, we subtract the pure noise from our voice and we get the rest, that is, our voice without noise. The brain works similarly. It associates that the heart is beating, especially at what frequency, and ignores it.
THERE IS NO SMOKE WITHOUT FIRE…
… a rose without thorns and a brain without mistakes. Exactly so – evolution’s most precious creation is not perfect and makes mistakes, takes shortcuts, can be lazy. It happens to lump all stimuli with a frequency similar to the heartbeat together and ignore them. At least, he tries to do so by making it difficult to notice them. He behaves terribly stereotypically – he generalizes stimuli.
In order not to be accused of purely philosophical chatter, let’s turn to scientific experiments. One study noted that visual stimuli synchronized with a particular participant’s heartbeat were harder to perceive than asynchronous stimuli. The subjects needed more time to be aware of them. It has been suggested that the anterior insula – an anatomical structure of the brain made up of gray matter – plays a major role in suppressing interoceptive bodily signals, simplifying: those coming from within us.
BRAIN OR HEART?
So the brain suppresses the internal stimulus, which is the heartbeat. Let’s say that the brain is the upper hand. But our experience of the world depends on how our heartbeats. So this important muscle doesn’t give up. It makes it hard for the brain to see other stimuli in sync with the heart. It’s like it’s jealous of them. Only it’s the brain’s own fault for acting this way. Who has the final say? The two organs affect each other. Trying to answer such a question is akin to asking the egg and the chicken. Remember, however, that the heart is not the only source of stimuli that the brain must suppress.
All this fuss about the heart and the brain has a second bottom. It has been suggested that interoceptive sensitivity, particularly of the heartbeat, plays a key role in the pathogenesis of anxiety disorders. In other words, how the brain handles the suppression of stimuli from our bodies may influence whether we perform better in a stressful situation, for example. There is a hypothesis that people who are more sensitive to their internal states are more likely to have anxiety disorders. In short: it’s better not to hear your heart, but should you listen to it? The decision is up to you. Find your golden mean.
- Roy Salomon, Roberta Ronchi, Jonathan Dönz, Javier Bello-Ruiz, Bruno Herbelin, Remi Martet, Nathan Faivre, Karl Schaller and Olaf Blanke, The Insula Mediates Access to Awareness of Visual Stimuli Presented Synchronously to the Heartbeat, Journal of Neuroscience 4 May 2016, 36 (18) 5115-5127; doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4262-15.2016;
- Schulz, A., & Vögele, C. (2015). Interoception and stress. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 993; doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00993;
- Domschke K, Stevens S, Pfleiderer B, Gerlach AL. Interoceptive sensitivity in anxiety and anxiety disorders: an overview and integration of neurobiological findings. Clin Psychol Rev. 2010 Feb;30(1):1-11; doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2009.08.008. PMID: 19751958.