Sometimes (quite often actually), I wake up with a word or phrase in my head. This morning it was “heart of the universe”. The particular word or phrase can set off all kinds of different thoughts and where this one quickly went was “It’s 2013. It’s 40 years since I dissected a human heart. Second year, Medical School, Edinburgh University. That year we learned Anatomy and Physiology. I was amazed at the structure of the heart. It’s four chambers, the valves, the specialised heart muscle cells which each had their own rhythm, the conduction pathways from the “AV node” which carried the co-ordinating electrical beat to produce the two, opposite states of the heart – systole and asystole.
It was two years later before they told us to put on white coats, buy a good quality stethoscope, and led us on ward rounds, to stand collectively around patients’ beds, and one by one, place our shiny new stethoscopes on their chests to listen for the “lub dub” of the “normal” heart, and listen carefully for the clicks and sounds which filled the silences and revealed the disorders of the valves.
Over the years as a GP, I prescribed the drugs to slow hearts down, to regulate disordered rhythms, and to improve the blood supply to get the oxygen to the cells starved by blocked arteries and causing angina. I also found people presenting with pain, flutters and skipped beats of the heart whose investigation results showed no obvious pathologies. What were we to do with them? And where was the explanation for their symptoms? If their symptoms weren’t signposts to pathology, then what were they?
Gradually, I became aware of how we use heart in our language, as people told me about “broken hearts”, “heart ache”, “longings of the heart”, “an emptiness in my heart”, “getting to the heart of the problem”, “filling my heart with joy”. Of course, from early years I became familiar with the shape of a heart as we would draw it to communicate love. We see that shape everywhere.
Why the heart? Why not the liver, or the pancreas, or the spleen? Why not the kidneys?
I knew there were intimate connections between the brain and the heart, mainly channeled through the “autonomic nervous system”. Then only in the last few years did I learn we’ve discovered that there is a neural network around the heart and associated with that is the production of neuropeptides (the small proteins which act on the brain) within the heart and its neural network. So, the links are more intimate than I realised, and, most importantly, more two way than I realised – the brain acts on the heart, but the heart also acts on the brain. In fact, it seems we do some of our mental processing using these neurones around the heart. (That dismissive phrase which I never liked – “it’s all in your head” – turns out to be even more stupid than I always thought it was)
And as time passed, and I experienced encounters with more patients, I began to see that sometimes (not always but often enough to always consider), there were direct links between “heart issues”, “heart language” and “heart symptoms”, irrespective of the presence or absence of pathologies.
So, here’s something to consider as you think ahead into 2013. How about building your “heart intelligence”? That’s a concept that means somewhat different things to different people, but let’s just use it as it is, without detailed definition.
Try the Heartmath technique. Sit quietly, focus on your heart area, take three deep, slow heart breaths, then recreate for yourself a heart feeling (you can find the details here). In this state of “coherence”, ask your heart a question, and wait to see what answer appears. Write it down.
What does your heart tell you about 2013?
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