How We Stopped Believing the Heart Controls the Brain

How We Stopped Believing the Heart Controls the Brain

Our understanding of the brain has come a long way since prehistoric times. In this article, we will explore the history of neuroscience and how the heart's role in controlling the brain was debunked.

For millennia, humans have been using their brains to create stories, develop tools, and manipulate energy. However, early civilizations viewed the heart as the main focus of all things associated with the brain. Expressions such as "learn by heart" and words like "heartfelt" indicate how early civilizations mostly viewed the heart as the center of all functions associated with the brain.

Even ancient texts, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, The Vedic Sanskrit hymns, and the Torah, all point to the idea that the heart generates thoughts and emotions. This belief was not limited to these texts alone. Similar beliefs existed in other civilizations such as the Maya and Aztecs. According to Matthew Kopp, author of "The Idea of the Brain," most native people in America believed the same thing.

In Egypt, the shipaka stone is evidence of this belief. The general belief seemed to have been that the heart ruled the body through its control over the five senses, emotions, and cognition in general. However, the Australian Aborigines did not share this belief.

Despite this belief, some thinkers disagreed. Alkmaian of Croton, a Greek philosopher, seems to have been the first to propose the brain to have a central function in human understanding. Despite support from Plato and Hippocrates, among others, this revolutionary idea put forward by Alkmaian was eventually dismissed. Aristotle's belief that the heart was the center of sensation and reasoning, due to his reputation as a great Greek philosopher, led later generations to ignore Alkmaian's theory.

However, under the Roman Empire's rule, one of the most significant influences on how we study the brain today came from Greece. Galen of Pergamon, a physician and philosopher, demonstrated how squeezing an animal's heart and preventing it from beating would not prevent the animal from making sounds, whereas doing so to its brain would turn the animal unconscious. Although these experiments were conducted in front of a live audience and were done with Aristotle's supporters' presence, they played a crucial role in changing people's heart-centric views.

This showmanship allowed these experiments to remain influential for thousands of years. However, with the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the possibility of conducting further experiments was squashed, and a lot of knowledge was lost. Despite this setback, the Islamic world produced many new ideas and works during the medieval period. However, due to the importance that Hellenic classical works retained in this culture, they once again embraced Aristotle's heart-centric views.

Scholars such as Abisena argued that although Galen was right in some aspects, such as his proposition that nerves arise from the brain and spinal cord, the heart was still at the center of movement and sensation. Around the same time period, the physician known in the West as Aliapas translated Galen's work and expanded on it by adding one of the most influential ideas of this time period. His argument was that not only was the brain the source of emotions, cognition, and the five senses, but it also contained the seat of the soul.

In conclusion, the history of neuroscience is a fascinating journey. From early civilizations viewing the heart as the center of all things associated with the brain to modern-day neuroscience, our understanding of the brain has come a long way. Despite setbacks, such as the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the influence of Aristotle's heart-centric views, and the loss of knowledge, we have managed to debunk the myth that the heart controls the brain.

Pritam Chakraborty

As I was moving through life, I occasionally saw brief glimpses of beauty.

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