Does the Heart have a Brain?

Thinking with the heart and not the head could now be no longer considered merely a metaphor thanks to recent discoveries by modern neurocardiologists.  Neural cells make up 60%- 65% of the heart rather than muscle cells, as previously thought.  The axonic and dendritic connections of these cells called ganglia and the neurotransmitters between them mimic the neural links found in the brain.

This quite literally makes the heart an “emotional brain.”

As an exocrine gland, the heart secrets the hormone atrial natriuretic factor (ANF) affecting every part of the limbic system, the part of our body that processes emotion.  This quite literally makes the heart an “emotional brain.”  The ganglia in the heart have connections to every major organ in the body as well as our muscular system.  This could be why human emotion can be conveyed through expressive movement and dance or why a person’s stomach could feel tied up in knots with impeded digestion during times of great stress or emotional upheaval.

Heart ache is a sensation the body commonly feels when you’ve lost a loved one or ended a relationship.  The chest can literally ache as you feel a surge of emotional strife.  In the west we understand the brain and its limbic system to be the baring of bad feelings along with the perception of any other emotional state we might feel.  Western medicine has countless prescription drugs to numb the effects of certain emotional states that become unbearable for us.  Modern day psychologists see this as a course of treatment, attributing the reason for these high and low emotional states to be a chemical imbalance in the brain.

TCM does not look to the brain and it’s neurotransmitters as a method of diagnosis and treatment of psychological disturbances as seen in the West. Extreme states of anxiety, sadness, insomnia, and mania are all conditions of imbalances in the heart.   A state of anxiety, for example, could have a diagnosis of ‘heart fire.”  Traditional Chinese medicine sees the heart as the “king organ” of all emotions.  It houses what is known as a the shen.  Acupuncture treatments calm shen and correct imbalances either with the heart or what encases it, the pericardium.  From a mild state of anxiety to a more severe condition of schizophrenia, all look to not the brain, but the organ the heart and its Chinese meridian systems as a way to restore a patient’s emotional health.